What is the value of a life?

One abducted Israeli for 400 Arab prisoners: It's a trade dividing not just the Israeli cabinet but the country itself.

A prisoner exchange with Lebanon's Hizbullah organization that promises to bring home an abducted businessman in exchange for some 400 Arab prisoners is dividing Israel and posing some harrowing moral dilemmas.

The swap, brokered by Germany was approved in the cabinet last week, 12 to 11, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon mustered heavy pressure in favor of it. It will also bring back the bodies of three soldiers believed to have been killed by Hizbullah, a Lebanese guerrilla organization, three years ago. But it will not include any information on Israel's most famous prisoner, Ron Arad, a navigator downed over Lebanon in 1986.

"This particular swap brings out issues of how loyal are we, as a state, going to be to soldiers and citizens taken by the enemy, and what is the price we are willing to pay to get them back," says Yoram Yovell, a psychiatrist and author. "The people who oppose this do it for the same reasons as the people who support it, namely the sacredness of human life."

Mr. Sharon argued that it was necessary to back the deal to save the businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, despite the fact that it meant freeing a former Lebanese militia official, Mustafa Dirani, who was abducted in 1994 as a bargaining chip for Mr. Arad. "We need to save a living Israeli citizen. Leaving him there means leaving him to die," he said.

The vote puts to rest, at least for now, an ugly battle between families that divided the country just as it split the cabinet. One key question appears to be whose life, or at least whose remains, is worth more: that of Arad, a member of the country's most elite institution, the air force, who possibly, although not certainly, died in captivity? Or that of Mr. Tannenbaum, who was abducted by Hizbullah while on a murky business trip that Israeli press reports, denied by his family, say may have involved drug trafficking?

Beyond that, the decision, at least for the public, involves choices between colliding national and religious values such as the army's never leaving a soldier behind, as Arad's supporters argue is being done, and a centuries-old Jewish tradition of redeeming prisoners like Tannenbaum. Another cherished Jewish value, that of bringing the dead to burial in Israel, also factors into the equation, scholars add.

"There are dilemmas upon dilemmas here," says Avi Ravitzky, a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University. Professor Ravitzky believes that Israel's willingness to release so many prisoners, including Mr. Dirani, shows that the ethic of redeeming prisoners lives on.

But he stresses that when Jews were held for ransom in Medieval Europe, the communities trying to rescue them weighed whether paying enormous sums would invite further abductions. And, he adds, in this instance, the ethic of bringing the corpses of soldiers to burial would have to take second place to the well-being of the living, according to Jewish law. To decide, he says, it must be gauged whether the Arab prisoners being freed are potentially dangerous.

Some 20 reservist airmen who knew Arad protested as the cabinet met, accusing Sharon of "abandoning a soldier in the field." A recent Defense Ministry report concluded that Israel should act on the assumption that Arad is still alive, even though there has been no trace of him since the late 1980s, when he was believed to have been transferred to Iranian custody.

His former flight instructor, who identified himself only as Colonel Dan, says: "Israel is closing the chapter without Ron. Just as the air force is asked to complete its mission, so should the government. Half a mission is not a mission."

The ethos of not leaving a soldier behind dates back to before the establishment of the state to the Haganah Jewish underground, and it was intensified in the years after Israel's establishment in 1948, according to Zeev Schiff, the military analyst for the Ha'aretz newspaper.

"According to this, a soldier must know that no matter what happens, he won't be left behind wounded, as a prisoner, or even his corpse," Mr. Schiff says, adding that it was also recognized that the ethos should not be taken to such extremes as to sacrifice soldiers to retrieve a body.

In Schiff's view, the idea that Arad must be saved was the driving force behind the decision to kidnap Dirani from Ksarnaba village in a risky helicopter operation. Dirani had earlier had custody over Arad in his capacity as security chief for the Lebanese Amal militia.

The ethos has also guided lopsided prisoner swaps over the years, including a 1985 deal in which Israel freed more than a 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers.

Tzipi Livne, a cabinet minister who voted against the current deal, said she feared that paying such a high price would boost Hizbullah, a bitter enemy that drove Israel out of Lebanon in 2000. The prisoners to be freed are mostly Palestinians, but include some Lebanese.

"In my eyes, there was concern over the processes of strengthening terrorism this will set in motion," she said. "Hizbullah may draw conclusions that will lead to more deaths of our people."

There remains one possible hitch to the deal, namely the fate of a Lebanese prisoner, Samir Kuntar, serving a life sentence for murdering Israelis in a notorious attack in 1979. Cabinet ministers said Tuesday he would not be freed in the exchange, but Hizbullah has been signaling that failure to let him go could derail the entire arrangement.

Supporters of the exchange argue that Dirani is not a useful bargaining chip for Arad, because he has been in custody for so many years without yielding information. Yuval Livnat, a lecturer at the Hebrew University Law School, says that the prisoner swap touches upon the moral concepts of the ethics of justice and compassion. Having sent Arad into battle, the state has an obligation according to the ethics of justice to bring him back. This would take priority over the ethics of compassion for Tannenbaum, a citizen "who did a foolish thing and brought the suffering on himself."

However, since security officials say that releasing Dirani does not affect Arad's fate, there is no conflict between the two ethics, and "it is commendable for the state to show compassion to Tannenbaum," Mr. Livnat says.

Yovell sees it differently. He believes that the state is not being guided by moral values, but rather that Sharon is using Tannenbaum to show the public that he is sensitive to protecting human life.

"This government is using the deal as a fig leaf to cover its own moral bankruptcy," he says, referring to what he says is its dismissal of cease-fire opportunities and army assassinations that kill innocent bystanders. "In fact, it has not shown anything resembling sensitivity to human life when it comes to Israelis or Palestinians."

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