The impending deal over the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners — many serving life sentences for terror — to secure the return of Gilad Shilat, touches upon one of the most sensitive points in the collective Israeli psyche.
It also an issue with immense political, security and social ramifications, whether in terms of the price being paid for his release, or the implications of allowing him to continue languishing in captivity.
Rami Igra, the former head of Mossad’s Prisoners and MIAs department, opposes such deals.
“The price that is currently being discussed,” he says, “is above and beyond the country’s capabilities. This issue has to be approached with a cold and practical attitude, not with all the sentimental feelings of wanting to return a child to his parents.” Mr Igra blames politicians for an “election eve spin” surrounding the latest reports and lists four reasons that the proposed deal should not go through.
“First, the security aspect. If, after the Gaza operation, we release so many murderers to Hamas, the Palestinians will believe that the bad guys always win and think that Abu Mazen’s way is wrong and Hamas are right.
“Secondly, we have to consider the potential these people have to cause damage after being released. In 1985 we released 1,150 prisoners in return for three of our soldiers. They were the ones who founded Hamas.
“Thirdly, we have an infinite responsibility to the prisoners and their families but that mustn’t mean that we lose all rationality.
“And finally, there is the political and social consideration. The pressure now exerted on the government by politicians and the media to secure Shalit’s release makes Hamas feel that it can sit back and let Israelis do all their work for them.”
Igra believes that Israel should stop making asymmetrical deals. “We should act like the British and the Americans and not do deals. The only solution is a situation in which it will not be worth anyone’s while to kidnap our people. Yes, there will be sacrifices. Just as when we fought in Gaza and lost 13 of our people.”
Veteran negotiator Uri Slonim holds the opposite view. He says there can never be symmetry in these situations since “Israel is a democracy, with legal procedures and free press and we are dealing here with organisations with different norms and no media monitoring them.
“And we live in an area where there are different mentalities regarding life and death. The fact is that we hold many more prisoners than they do.”
His conclusion is that all talk of “price” is irrelevant and “each case has to be judged on its merits”. Nor does he accept the argument that the life of a released prisoner should be balanced against those of civilians who may be killed in the future. “I can’t rule out any deal that may save lives. When a nation fights terror, then it should fight. But when we are engaged in a humanitarian effort, then we should not mix up the two."