Freeing Palestinian prisoners is a big gamble

Judaism has much to say about ransoming the captive, and the supreme value of every Jewish life. With Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposed trade of 250 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, that Jewish ethic is being put sorely to the test.

No deal has been finalized, but the idea of a swap has inflamed Israeli public opinion.

Some leaders, such as Foreign Minister Tzivi Lipni, have backed Olmert’s proposal, saying it will strengthen moderate Palestinian forces. Others, like Benyamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, have strongly condemned it.

What’s behind the prisoner exchange? In addition to freeing Shalit, Olmert clearly believes a deal will boost Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his life-and-death struggle with Hamas.

If only it were that simple.

Has Israel ever bought peace through such exchanges? Has Israel bought Palestinian cooperation in fighting terrorism or negotiating disputes?

Haven’t freed Palestinian prisoners merely recycled themselves back into the infrastructure of terror?

This time, Olmert will reportedly demand freed Palestinian prisoners sign a pledge never again to commit acts of violence against Israel. Bet that has the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade quaking in their boots.

Adding to the uncertainty, the Israeli press reported this week that Hamas, too, has weighed in on the list of Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged. If true, we have to ask why Hamas would have a place at the table, especially when Israel has a great opportunity to marginalize the terrorist group in the wake of the Gaza coup.

Even worse, one of the top names on the list is Marwan Barghouti, the terrorist mastermind now serving five life sentences for the murder of Jews. Freeing him would be like releasing a lethal toxin into the water supply.

No one of good will wants Gilad Shalit held a minute more. His release would do much for Israeli morale and for the basic tenets of justice. We strongly advocate for his immediate and unconditional release.

Granted, more may be taking place behind the scenes, and we are generally loath to lecture Israel from our comfortable vantage point 10,000 miles away.

But it seems to us that Israel gets little in return for the swap, given that the benefits seem tenuous and ill defined. We pray the Olmert government has weighed the risks and that the gamble pays off.