Israel May Face Tough Call on Prisoners Over Abducted Teens

Israelis in the midst of an impassioned debate over past prisoner swaps that freed Palestinian attackers now may have to make another agonizing choice to save three kidnapped teens.

The three disappeared on June 12 while hitchhiking in the West Bank just south of Jerusalem. While no group has claimed responsibility, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed the Hamas movement. The group, considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, repeatedly has threatened to take hostages to force Israel to release Palestinians held in its prisons.

The kidnapping has fanned the debate over prisoner swaps, which some politicians and security officials say invite militants to take more hostages. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, said he would instruct members of his Israel Beitenu party to vote against any such proposal because prisoner swaps compromise Israel’s security.

“We have to make it so kidnappings won’t pay off,” Liberman said. About 5,300 Palestinian security prisoners are in Israeli custody, prisons service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said today.

Shortly before the kidnapping, lawmakers began debating a bill that would grant judges the authority to sentence prisoners to life without possibility of parole or pardon.

Israel has a history of lopsided deals to rescue soldiers and civilians from enemy hands, dating back to 1985, when it freed 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon. In 2011, it traded more than 1,000 prisoners for a single soldier held in Gaza for five years, Gilad Shalit.

Protect Soldiers

Former Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon who supported such swaps argued that a country with mandatory army service must make soldiers confident they won’t be left behind on the battlefield or in enemy hands.

Having criticized earlier prisoner releases, Netanyahu followed his predecessor’s lead with the Shalit deal, and agreed last year to release dozens of Palestinians as part of the U.S.- brokered arrangement that brought the Palestinians back to the negotiating table last July.

The uneven swaps, the prospect of freed prisoners returning to militant activity, and the release of dozens of others under peace talks that collapsed in April sparked the proposed legislation to block such trades.

“Right now there is strong political rhetoric, especially from the Israeli right, against freeing any more Palestinians to save Israeli captives,” said Meir Elran, who heads the program on socio-military relations at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Political Will

“Ultimately though, that political will is likely over time to erode in the face of intense public pressure to save hostages that you see in this relatively small society,” Elran said.

Because the legislation is still pending, it wouldn’t apply in the current case, meaning the cabinet may be forced to decide whether to draw the line now.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party introduced the bill intended to thwart prisoner releases, hasn’t commented on how he would vote in this case, where the victims are part of his religious Zionist community.

Because the three youths were kidnapped in the West Bank, the possibility of a successful rescue operation may make Israel less willing to swap, according to retired Colonel Barak Ben-Zur, who headed the research division of the Shin Bet internal security service.

“The assumption that these three are still being held in the West Bank, an area under fully under Israel’s security control, would incline the security forces to keep favoring a possible operational answer for their release, rather than any deal,” Ben-Zur said.

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