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Israel pays high price for bodies

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Jerusalem

Karnit Goldwasser and Ehud Olmert
PM Ehud Olmert and Karnit Goldwasser at the coffin of her husband, Ehud

It is at times like this that many Israelis feel more isolated and different in a world that doesn't really "get" why so much effort has gone into securing the return of two dead soldiers.

In a region where bodies and hostages are currency, Israel has paid an extraordinarily high price to bring back the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Even the Israeli government, no stranger to "spinning" a positive line on controversial policies, doesn't try to hide the fact that this has been an unequal deal.

The maths is simple. Two dead bodies swapped with Hezbollah in exchange for 199 bodies and five live prisoners.

It is not just the figures.

Israeli mindset

The vastly different reactions on either side of this tense, volatile border could not have been more marked: euphoric scenes of celebration across Lebanon (not just confined to supporters of Hezbollah), as opposed to two days of unofficial "mourning" in Israel.

Israeli newspapers all carried the same lead photograph - of Ehud Goldwasser's young widow, Karnit, being comforted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, over the coffin of the reserve sergeant.


It is a promise we make to every Israeli mother that, when we send her son or daughter away to fight, we will bring them home whatever happens to them

Col Miri Eisin
Israeli Defence Force

The same newspapers carry similar editorials acknowledging how painful the process is for all Israelis but also that this is an essential part of the Israeli mindset or psyche.

One senior Israeli military and political figure I have spoken to many times in recent years is Colonel Miri Eisin.

During the month-long 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, which began after Sgts Goldwasser and Regev were abducted, Col Eisin regularly briefed the foreign media on the progress of the war and on Israel's objectives.

It is generally agreed that Israel did not win the war and certainly did not meet many of those objectives - defeating Hezbollah, getting the soldiers back etc.

In the searing heat of the Mediterranean sun as we watched the highly choreographed final journey home of Sgts Regev and Goldwasser, I spoke to Col Eisin again.

This was, she said, something that few people outside Israel could ever understand.

"It is an essential part of our moral fibre, of our soul," she says.

"It is a promise we make to every Israeli mother that, when we send her son or daughter away to fight, we will bring them home whatever happens to them."

'Weakness'

Col Eisin acknowledges my suggestion that what Israelis see as their "soul" is regarded by their many enemies as a "flaw", a "weakness".

"That's just the way it is," she responds. "We won't change the way we are."

Mr Olmert's long-term future doesn't look good, despite the distraction of this controversial prisoner swap.

Even this week the focus has returned to damaging allegations of political corruption.

But in the short term, pictures of a genuinely upset prime minister sombrely welcoming home the young, dead soldiers won't harm his tarnished image.

As much as they disliked the terms of the swap - especially the release to Hezbollah of the notorious killer Samir Qantar - all Israelis are relieved that the Goldwasser and Regev families have finally got their sons back.

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