Hezbollah swap complicates the return of Gilad Shalit

The long-awaited resolution to the Lebanese hostage crisis has cast a pall over efforts to retrieve Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Shalit was abducted shortly before Hezbollah snatched Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in the summer of 2006. Unlike the two army reservists, who suffered fatal wounds during their abduction and were repatriated for burial last week, Shalit is known to be alive.

That, Israeli security sources say, has hindered Egyptian-mediated negotiations on Shalit’s return. Having freed jailed Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar and four captive Hezbollah gunmen in exchange for two Israeli corpses, Israel is likely to face troubles bargaining down Hamas when it comes to a living hostage.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has long balked at the asymmetry of the swap proposed by Hamas, which seeks the release of about 1,100 prisoners, at least a third of them serving life sentences for deadly attacks.

Olmert successfully held out against a similar opening demand by Hezbollah, which had wanted many Arab prisoners, as well as the five Lebanese, freed from Israeli jails.

But as Shalit enters a third year of captivity in conditions that are widely believed to be primitive, Olmert faces mounting pressure, even from within his Cabinet, to compromise on the ransom.

At least three ministers have publicly backed the idea of releasing prisoners “with blood on their hands,” a reversal of a long-standing Israeli doctrine. One Cabinet member, Ami Ayalon, warned that failing to retrieve Shalit could risk losing him forever.

In several media interviews Ayalon, a former navy admiral and Shin Bet chief, compared Shalit’s situation to that of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman who bailed out of his plane over Lebanon in 1986. For the first two years, Arad was held in Lebanon by various militias while Israel deliberated over if and how to bargain for his return. Then he disappeared — to Iran, Israel assumes — and the trail went cold.

Shalit’s family has argued that Hamas eventually could decide to smuggle Shalit out of Gaza through Sinai and on to Lebanon or Iran.

“The similarities between the cases of Shalit and of Arad are terrifying,” Ayalon said.

Olmert has given no indication of how he might now pursue the Shalit issue, though on July 20 he offered public reassurance.

“I phoned the Shalit family and promised, in all of our names, that we will do everything to bring Gilad Shalit back home — alive, healthy, in one piece, and as quickly as possible,” he told his Cabinet in broadcast remarks.

“I don’t have to tell you that it’s not simple, it’s not easy. Just as we labored for two whole years, day in and day out, to bring back Udi and Eldad, may they rest in peace, we are doing the same thing for Gilad Shalit. We will not be still or silent until he comes back.”

Freeing Shalit would be an enormous morale booster for Israel after the dispiriting sight of Goldwasser and Regev returning home in black coffins. It also could distract from a corruption case dogging Olmert and free up Israel’s armed forces to invade Gaza should there be a major resumption of cross-border rocket fire.

Israeli officials have hinted that the military is being kept in check partly out of concern that Shalit could be executed as a reprisal.

But while Hamas in Gaza might suffer from losing its bargaining chip, in the West Bank it would reap major strategic rewards.

The release roster filed by Hamas includes scores of its senior West Bank terrorists, including the planners of suicide bombing campaigns. Returned home and free to operate, they could undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has tried to build on his split with Hamas last year by reviving peace talks with Olmert and instituting a law-and-order drive in the West Bank.