By Joel Greenberg
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 5:37 PM
JERUSALEM -- Under pressure from a snowballing public campaign by parents of an Israeli soldier held captive for four years by Hamas in Gaza, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went on national television on Thursday to assert that Israel would not "pay any price" for his freedom.
Referring to a moment last December when a deal and prisoner exchange seemed imminent, Netanyahu confirmed that Israel had agreed to a Geman-mediated proposal to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006.
But Netanyahu insisted that he would not release "arch-murderers" responsible for bombings that killed many Israelis, and that "dangerous terrorists" who were freed would not be able to return to their homes in the West Bank, where he said they could organize fresh attacks.
Netanyahu said that despite his fervent wish to bring Shalit home, "every prime minister of Israel must consider the security of all of the country's citizens."
"The state of Israel is willing to pay a heavy price for the release of Gilad Shalit," Netanyahu said. "But it cannot say, 'at any price.' That is the truth and I'm saying it here."
Disagreement over conditions of release and the list of prisoners to be freed has prevented the prisoner exchange, and there has been no recent progress toward a deal.
Netanyahu's speech drew a prompt response from Noam Shalit, the father of the captive soldier. "The tens of thousands of citizens marching with us this week to Jerusalem . . . are aware of the price that is required to free him," he said. "But they also know the price of abandoning Gilad, a soldier of the Israel Defense Forces in enemy captivity."
Shalit's parents have been marching with thousands of supporters this week from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem, where they have vowed to stay until the government agrees to a prisoner exchange with Hamas.
The march has attracted intense media attention in Israel, with hourly radio reports on its progress and pages of sympathetic press coverage. Images of the Shalit family at the head of a long column of marchers have energized the drive for the soldier's release and revived debate over what price Israel should pay to bring him home.
The Shalits' campaign has thrown Netanyahu on the defensive, and on Thursday he sought to recapture the momentum by expressing sympathy with the soldier's family while laying down red lines that he said he could not cross.
"The German mediator's offer which we agreed to accept called for the release of 1,000 terrorists. This is the price I am prepared to pay to bring Gilad home. I said yes to the deal, and it is ready for immediate implementation. But there are prices that I am not prepared to pay and are not included in the proposal being made," Netanyahu said.
Citing cases in which Palestinians released in previous prisoner exchanges had resumed deadly attacks, Netanyahu said he is insisting that freed prisoners deemed dangerous by Israel should not return to the West Bank, from which they could reach Israeli cities, but should be sent to the Gaza Strip or abroad. He added that those responsible for major attacks that killed scores of Israelis would not be freed.
As the campaign to free Shalit has gathered steam, some former senior Israeli security officials have argued publicly that releasing a few dozen prisoners previously involved in serious attacks would not pose a significant threat to Israel, and that their movements in the West Bank could be monitored to head off any renewed threats.
A poll published last week in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper showed that 72 percent of those surveyed favored a deal to release Shalit, even if it meant the release of "hundreds of terrorists," including those who had killed Israelis.
Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Shalit was captured by militants from Hamas and allied groups. The embargo was tightened after Hamas seized control of the territory a year later. Past negotiations to exchange Palestinian prisoners for Shalit's release have also failed.
Greenberg is a special correspondent.