At dinner in Tel Aviv last week discussion turned to the strange, awful case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured and held prisoner by Hamas for the past four years. The rumour was that Israel was prepared to offer an extraordinary deal to bring Shalit home and that this would involve releasing hundreds, perhaps even as many as a thousand, prisoners in exchange for the life and liberty of a single Israeli soldier.
What, asked our hosts, did we think of this? Would the British government countenance such a deal? No, our visiting troop of journalists thought, it probably would not. It would be seen as a sign of weakness and an invitation to capture and hold hostage other soldiers. Saving one would imperil many more.
This is the logical way of looking at the matter. But I wonder if it's the correct one. The Shalit case is about something more than a complex cost-benefit analysis. If there is a deal - though of course it's possible that the rumours are mistaken and no such deal will be struck - it may be that such a seemingly lop-sided bargain is actually a side of Israeli strength, not weakness.
In the first place, securing Shalit's release even at an exhorbitant price would honour the covenant Israel makes with every mother in the land: we will take your sons (and daughters) from you for three years in the military but we will always bring them home, one way or another. The psychology of a conscripted army is very different from that of our own all-volunteer army.
Secondly, the greater the price Israel pays for Shalit's release the greater the liklihood that many of those released will return to the armed struggle (though others may not be allowed back into Gaza or the Territories). So would this bargain demonstrate Israeli desperation or something else? Perhaps both. On the one hand, the saga must end eventually; on the other the more prisoners released the more Israel sends a message to the effect that We know this is a high price to pay and we know that it may invite trouble and terrorism and we don't care.
If that's the case (and it may not be!) then Israel sends a message that it can take the pain because it has done so before and expects to do so again. Nothing the Palestinians do will change that, nor fracture Israel's commitment to the covenant it makes with its mothers. If the price to be paid is awful then so be it. Israel is strong enough to cope.
Perhaps this is mistaken and securing Shalit's return at any price merely proves the extent to which Israel remains embattled. But I think it's something open to more than one interpretation.
Disclosure: my trip to Israel was paid for by Bicom, the Britain Israel Communications Research Centre.