Israel faces dilemma on freeing prisoners

Act to save soldier might imperil more


JERUSALEM -- With Israeli airstrikes and ground attacks in Gaza failing to free a 19-year-old soldier abducted by Palestinian militants, the soldier's father has raised a difficult question facing Israel: Should the government negotiate with hostage takers?

Speaking outside his house, Noam Shalit, the father of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, urged the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his son.

"In the end, it will be necessary to pay a price for Gilad's freedom," the elder Shalit said this week. "I don't understand why the government is delaying negotiations on this price."

A senior Israeli official hinted yesterday that Israel might agree to release prisoners, but only after Palestinians release Shalit and take other steps. "Israel will need to, after some time, release prisoners as a reciprocal gesture," Avi Dichter, Israel's minister for public security, said at a meeting of businessmen. "Israel knows how to do this. Israel has done this more than once in the past."

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has expressed fear that a prisoner swap would encourage Palestinian militants to carry out more kidnappings of Israeli soldiers.

But historically, Israeli policy has never been absolute. Israel has negotiated at least indirectly with hostage takers in the past, striking lopsided deals to free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for the release of soldiers and civilians, and the recovery of soldiers' remains.

Olmert may be forced to soften his position if Shalit's captors, including members of the militant group Hamas, make a detailed offer, said Boaz Ganor, an expert in counter-terrorism strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

"If [Hamas] would demand a reasonable sum of prisoners, say three specific Palestinian prisoners, in return for this soldier, this would be difficult for the prime minister to say there is nothing to negotiate about," he said.

Such a proposal may be in the works. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing sources within Hamas, reported yesterday that Hamas would agree to release Shalit and to stop firing short-range rockets into southern Israel in exchange for the release of all female Palestinian prisoners - there are about 110 of them - and about 30 prisoners who have been in Israeli jails for more than 20 years.

Jibril Rajoub, a former national security adviser in the Palestinian Authority, told the paper that Hamas' Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, would agree to such a deal.

The comments yesterday by Dichter suggested that Israel was at least considering an Egyptian proposal to secure Shalit's release without a direct prisoner swap. Egyptian mediators have proposed a two-step deal in which Hamas would free Shalit and stop rocket fire. In return, Israel would end its offensive in Gaza and eventually free an unspecified number of prisoners and Hamas leaders, the Associated Press reported.

Hamas signaled that it was prepared to strike a deal, the wire service reported. "We are ready to reach a consensus on an acceptable joint formula ... to end this case," the group said in an e-mail. "The release of prisoners must be the main component."

Other Israeli officials said no such negotiations were under consideration, nor would they be. "It's a slippery slope. If hostage-taking becomes an attractive enterprise, there will be more hostage-taking down the line," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Everyone feels for the Shalit family. Everyone can identify with his parents. This is a country where nearly everyone does national service. It could have been anyone's son or daughter. The position of the government has been discussed and re-discussed. We will do whatever we can to bring about Shalit's release," he said.

"But the idea of giving into the kidnappers' demands, that is just not on the cards."

Public opinion polls offer conflicting pictures of the public's mood. A poll appearing last week in Yedioth Ahronoth reported that 53 percent of the people surveyed favored negotiating for Shalit's release, while 43 percent advocated military action.

But a poll taken this week by Ma'ariv found only 20 percent favoring the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

The last Israeli soldier to be captured by Hamas was Nachshon Wachsman in 1994, during the Oslo peace process. Wachsman was killed by his captors when Israel, which refused to negotiate, sent in Israeli commandos to raid the West Bank hideout.

In an op-ed piece last week in Haaretz, Wachsman's mother, Esther, called on Israel to remember the deals made in past hostage cases.

"I am not calling for the release of murderers, but they [Israel's leaders] should not insult our intelligence because they have negotiated and they have given in to terror," Esther Wachsman wrote.

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