JERUSALEM—Since Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected any suggestion that he release Palestinian prisoners to secure the young man's freedom.
But as a military campaign has failed to find the soldier or win his release, pressure to consider an exchange is mounting. A recent poll showed that 53 percent of Israelis favor negotiations, while 43 percent wanted more military action.
Israel has a long track record of embracing prisoner exchanges to resolve complex situations, analysts note. Over the last 30 years, a review shows, Israel has released about 7,000 prisoners to secure freedom for 19 Israelis and to get back the bodies of eight others.
Last week, Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, suggested that Israel would free prisoners if the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, is released and Gaza militants stop firing rockets into southern Israel.
"Israel will need to, after some time, release prisoners as a reciprocal gesture," he told a business group. "Israel knows how to do this. Israel has done this more than once in the past."
Israel's actions in Gaza have slowed recently after a flurry last week that included fighting in northern Gaza between Israeli tanks and Palestinian militants. On Monday, Olmert promised that military action would continue unless Shalit was released and Palestinians pledged to stop lobbing Qassam rockets into Israel.
But analysts believe that a prisoner exchange also could be in the offing, despite Olmert's tough talk.
"Israel has had a consistent policy of saying it will not negotiate with terrorists, but it has not had a consistent policy of not negotiating with terrorists," said Michael Oren, a senior researcher with The Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem.
The most famous release was the decision in 1997 to free the spiritual leader of the Hamas militant group, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and dozens of others. Yassin's freedom was granted in return for two Israeli intelligence agents who were arrested in Jordan after they bungled an attempt to kill Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas militant who now leads the organization from Syria.
The Mashaal connection is perhaps the greatest irony of the current crisis, which was triggered June 25 when Hamas-led militants raided an Israeli military outpost, killed two soldiers and captured Shalit. Many in Israel believe Mashaal ordered the raid. As part of its retaliation, Israel sent jets to buzz a palace belonging to Syria's president in an effort to bring pressure on Mashaal.
The militants holding Shalit, including Hamas members, first called on Israel to release about 100 women and 300 Palestinian prisoners under the age of 18 for information on the soldier. Then they demanded the release of 1,000 high-profile Palestinian prisoners for Shalit's freedom.
Olmert consistently has said no.
Shalit's father, Noam, has become a vocal proponent of negotiations. Heavy public pressure by the parents of captured soldiers is largely credited with helping force the government's hand in previous prisoner exchanges.
"We aren't going to get anything for free," Noam Shalit said in an interview Monday on Israel Radio.
Israel knows this and has undertaken various prisoner exchanges over the years.
In 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon. Then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin defended the deal. "When no military option exists," he said, "there is no choice but to enter negotiations and pay a price."
But Oren said the 1985 deal "broke a taboo that has never been healed."
Among the prisoners released was Kozo Okamoto of the Japanese Red Army, who had taken part in an attack that killed 26 civilians. Also released were hundreds of Palestinians who later "became the core of the first intifada" in the late 1980s, said Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute. "Many of them had blood on their hands."
In the 1997 release that freed Yassin, Israel released nearly six dozen prisoners. Yassin went on to oversee Hamas' deadly suicide bombing campaign until he was killed by an Israeli missile strike in 2004.
In 2004, Israeli agreed to release 429 prisoners in exchange for Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli civilian kidnapped in 2000 in Lebanon by the militant group Hezbollah. The exchange also included the bodies of three Israeli soldiers Hezbollah had been holding.
The prisoners released included militants who had been snatched by Israel specifically to trade for an Israeli airman who had been missing since 1986. To this day, no one knows what happened to the airman, Ron Arad.
A deal also may look more palatable to Israeli leaders considering the military's failure in 1994 to rescue 19-year-old Israeli-American Nachshon Waxman. Hamas militants had captured Waxman and held him for five days. He was killed by his captors during a botched Israeli rescue attempt.
Oren sees Olmert's no-negotiations stance as part of his negotiations stance.
"Everything Israel has done is part of a negotiating process," he said.
(Dion Nissenbaum in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
Previous Israeli Prisoner Exchanges
March 15, 1979—Israel exchanges 66 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured in Lebanon.
Nov. 24, 1983—Six Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon are released by the Palestine Liberation Organization in exchange for 4,700 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.
June 28, 1984—291 Syrian soldiers and 20 security prisoners were exchanged for three Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers.
May 21, 1985—Three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon are released by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in exchange for 1,150 prisoners held by Israel.
July 21, 1996—Israel frees 45 Shiite Muslims and returns the bodies of 100 Hezbollah fighters to Hezbollah in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon.
June 25, 1998—Israel frees 60 prisoners and transfers the bodies of 40 Hezbollah fighters to Hezbollah in exchange for the body of an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon.
October 1997—Israel releases about 70 prisoners, including Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in exchange for two intelligence agents who were captured during an attempt to assassinate another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal.
Jan. 29, 2004—Hezbollah releases an Israeli citizen and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers in exchange for 429 prisoners held by Israel and 59 bodies of Lebanese killed in fighting.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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