The prisoner exchange deal that Israel struck with Hamas last week does not make sense in terms of the country's foreign and defense policy goals. A country that has been a victim of terrorism for decades -- and that maintains that nations should never negotiate with terrorist organizations -- has done exactly that, exchanging 1,027 convicted terrorists (550 of whom were directly involved in multiple murders) for one soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Although the government initially considered military action to recover Shalit, who was abducted on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip in 2006, it was never a feasible option. Gaza's dense and hostile population would have made any rescue mission messy and dangerous. Moreover, Israeli intelligence had never determined his precise whereabouts. Over time -- and under immense public pressure -- the Israeli government began to entertain the notion of a political deal, the basic contours of which were drawn as early as 2007. (Israel would free roughly 550 Hamas prisoners, Hamas would free Shalit, and then Israel would free another 450.) At the time -- and when it resurfaced in 2009 -- the administration of then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert rejected the deal because the price was too high. Yet two and a half years later, both parties agreed to strikingly similar terms.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that he accepted the deal now for two reasons. First, he argues that he inherited the basic outlines of the swap from his predecessor, Olmert, and could not change them, certainly not with public opinion so strongly in favor of bringing Shalit home. And according to Netanyahu, regional developments made the agreement a now-or-never decision. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which hosts Hamas' political arm, is failing, and Hamas has been trying to find new accommodations; its options include post-Mubarak Egypt and Iran. Israel feared that Shalit could be transferred to Iran, which would have sealed his fate.
But there are other reasons that Netanyahu acted now. In 2009 and 2010, when Israel also seriously considered striking