In an epilogue to the Lebanon war two summers ago, Israel's cabinet on Sunday approved a prisoner swap with Hezbollah to recover two soldiers whose kidnapping along the Lebanese border sparked six weeks of cross-border fighting.
The deal involves trading Samir Quntar – a Lebanese member of a Palestinian militant group responsible for the killing of an Israeli father and daughter in a 1979 terrorist attack – for Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were abducted in 2006 and have probably been killed, say Israeli officials.
The swap is stirring a heated debate among Israelis about the trade-off between the obligations of the government to families and soldiers and the risk of encouraging more kidnappings by paying an "inflated" price to get soldiers back.
The same issues resonate in Israel's discussion of the ongoing talks to free Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit – who Israeli officials suspect is alive – and is being held by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group.
"What we have is a clash of morality," says Michael Oren, a military historian and the author of "Six Days of War."
"Where is the greater injustice? In not securing the release of Goldwasser, Regev, or in releasing Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists who have killed Israelis and may kill more of them in the future?" he asks.
The release of Mr. Goldwasser and Mr. Regev, one of the planks of the truce between Hezbollah and Israel outlined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, has been the focus of covert negotiations mediated by German go-betweens.
Despite the reported opposition by Israel's secret service agencies, Israel's cabinet approved the trade by a 22-to-0 vote with three abstentions Sunday. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted he deliberated through weeks of indecision.
"Our enemies, Hezbollah, tried every possible manipulation of Israeli society's deepest and most exposed feelings in order to influence the mood here also in order to exploit Israeli society's special moral sensitivity so as to prevent us from achieving a quick result on correct and balanced terms appropriate for such issues," he said.
"The conclusions that I have drawn are not free of doubts and dilemmas that we will have to deal with for many years to come."
In addition to Mr. Quntar, Israel agreed to release four other militants, the bodies of dozens of Lebanese gunman, information on the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats to the UN, and an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners at a later date.
The deal marks an apparent break with Israel's declared policy of refusing to recognize or negotiate with groups it defines as terrorists.
And yet, there are precedents stretching back more than 20 years of Israeli governments agreeing to asymmetric prisoner swaps with both Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups in order to recover prisoners of war and the remains of soldiers left behind in battle.
Still, this deal is creating a chorus of criticism that the high price paid by the government encourages more kidnappings. Former Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon wondered aloud yesterday if the soldiers' return is worth the added security risk. Even Knesset member Yossi Beilin, the leader of Israel's dovish Meretz party, expressed opposition to the latest prisoner swap.
"This is our weak point, and a weak point we can be proud of," he wrote in an opinion piece published on the Ynet.com website. "But this is the stage [when] a country [should be] permitted to stop and ask if it isn't being extorted. If Israel releases prisoners who are difficult to release in return for bodies, it tells our enemies that protecting the lives of our prisoners of war isn't the most important thing."
Israel's historic willingness to engage in such deals reflects an unwritten social understanding that if the teenagers and young adults (and families) who perform compulsory military service after high school fall prisoner, the government will spare no cost for their freedom.
It also reflects the desire to avoid rupturing the solidarity of the tiny country of 7 million inhabitants in which every soldier is considered a collective "son." The failure of Israel to rescue Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who was taken prisoner in Lebanon 1986 but subsequently disappeared, has haunted Israeli politicians and military officers for decades.
Mr. Olmert's failure until now to reach a deal to free Corporal Shalit, Goldwasser, and Regev has been yet another albatross on an already widely unpopular administration. While the soldiers' relatives have poured out their emotions in a campaign for quick deal, Israel's media has also come out in favor of a swap.
"Bring them home," read the banner headline in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest-selling daily newspaper.
The editorial in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper skewered the government for hesitating on the deal, while trying to debunk the argument that the prisoner exchanges with terrorist groups undermine Israel's security. "Bitter experience teaches that the kidnapping of soldiers and civilians is a tactic used by terrorist organizations, and no one can guarantee that these latest abductions will be the last. On no occasion in the past has Israel not negotiated with these groups," Haaretz wrote.