The Sept. 3 headline in Israel's mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot caught my eye: "800 prisoners to be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit."
Shalit was taken captive, and two Israel Defense Force soldiers were killed, during a daring Hamas attack launched via a tunnel into Israel from Gaza on June 25.
While the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denies it, there are reasons to believe that Jerusalem is planning to trade between 800 and 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit.
There are some 9,000 Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons. I'm sure a handful are as pure as the driven snow, but most are heartless killers (or their facilitators). People like Amana Muna, who lured a naive Israeli teenager named Ofir Rahum via the Internet to a rendezvous with death in Ramallah; or Ahlam Tamimi, the guide of the suicide bomber who blew up Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in 2001, murdering 15 Israelis.
Days after Shalit's kidnapping, the prime minister said something that made me proud I voted for his Kadima Party: "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations. We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners. The Palestinian Authority bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit, and for returning him safe and sound to Israel."
With that as a basis, Israel launched Operation Summer Rain, a series of military incursions into Gaza. True, the IDF has failed to track down Shalit, but we've made them pay dearly for the kidnapping and killings. The Hamas government is hurting; so is the Palestinian polity that elected it.
Then, on July 12, Hezbollah attacked across the Lebanese border, killing eight IDF soldiers and capturing Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Once again, Olmert made me proud when, in a seminal speech before the Knesset on July 17, he declared: "Citizens of Israel, there are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality, and say: No more! And I say to everyone: No more! Israel will not be held hostage — not by terror gangs, or by a terrorist authority, or by any sovereign state."
But now it turns out that negotiations are also under way — via a German intermediary — to ransom Regev and Goldwasser in return for 27 Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails, plus the bodies of a number of Hezbollah fighters killed in the war.
Reportedly the government is not ruling out freeing Samir Kuntar — responsible for the brutal 1979 murders of three members of the Haran family in Nahariya, as well as policeman Eliahu Shahar — as part of the deal.
Shlomo Goldwasser argues that "anything is justified" to get his son released. That's an understandable position for a father. But it is not the position a prime minister should take.
How does Olmert plan to explain his about-face to the parents of the soldiers killed trying to free Goldwasser and Regev? What will he tell the Terror Victims Association, which has warned against a prisoner swap?
If Olmert's pledge that Israel would not be held hostage doesn't preclude ransoming our soldiers for terrorists, then what exactly did it mean? Israel acted as if a newfound principle was at stake: that Kadima, unlike Likud and Labor, wouldn't cave in to terrorists.
Either we went to war because a principle was at stake, or it wasn't. Either we trade hostages for prisoners, or we don't.
History shows that every time Israel frees killers, at least some of them go back to their line of work. And giving terrorists their liberty lifts the enemy's spirits. Arab society can more easily tolerate "martyrs" than the lengthy incarceration of husbands, sons, brothers and daughters.
Don't we want to undermine enemy morale, and not bolster it?
There's another principle at stake: Palestinians convicted of killing Israeli civilians are criminals. They should not be exchanged as prisoners of war.
It makes sense that Palestinians want their kinfolk released. That desire should serve as an incentive for them to negotiate an end to the conflict.
As for the families of the captured IDF soldiers, they should be made to understand that the good of the many must outweigh the need — no matter how heartfelt and understandable — of the few.
Elliot Jager is editorial features editor of The Jerusalem Post.