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In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have invited two Frontpage columnists to debate what Israel gave up to get back its kidnapped soldier. Our guests are:
P. David Hornik, a freelance writer, regular FPM columnist, and translator living in Beersheva, Israel, who blogs at pdavidhornik.typepad.com.
Steven Plaut, a Frontpage columnist who teaches finance and economics at the University of Haifa in Israel. He holds a PhD from Princeton.
FP: David Hornik and Steven Plaut, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
David Hornik, you are for the exchange that recently occurred to free Gilad Shalit. Tell us why.
Hornik: Thanks Jamie.
Well let me begin by saying that recently on Frontpagemag my esteemed colleague Steven Plaut took issue with two Frontpagemag.com articles of mine (the main one is here) defending the Gilad Shalit deal. Let me start, therefore, by responding to Steve’s article.
A crucial issue is whether the deal will lead to further terror attacks on Israelis by the released terrorists, as indeed was the case with previous lopsided Israeli prisoner deals. I argued that it was unlikely for two reasons.
First, over the past several years Israel, mainly by reestablishing its security capabilities in the West Bank, has drastically reduced terrorism in any case. This at a time when hundreds if not thousands of terrorists freed in previous deals, along with many other terrorists or potential ones, continue to roam free—but mostly are unable to perpetrate terror. Second, under the terms of this deal, 110 terrorists of the less-dangerous variety will return to the West Bank where the effective Israeli security capabilities are in place; the rest of the freed terrorists will go to Gaza or abroad. In Gaza, as I noted, there are already over 20,000 Hamas and other terrorists, whose main form of terror at this point is rocket fire, and adding a couple of hundred does not materially change the security picture.
Steve writes that he
do[es] not buy the “statistical trend” argument that since terrorist murders in Israel have been relatively low in recent years, the trend can just be extrapolated. I think this smacks of “September 10, 2011” thinking. In other words, looking at recent numbers as indicative of trends does not save us from the possibility of imminent quantum leaps of danger.
Israel faces many potential quantum leaps of danger on the security front, but I don’t see the terrorists released in this deal as one of them. That is not to say, of course, that there is no risk at all, but that the risk is within the bounds of the acceptable.
Here I should point out that risk is inherent to the Israeli/Zionist enterprise. Moving from a Western country to Israel entails increased risk to one’s family. Within Israel, living in more dangerous parts of the country—such as parts of the West Bank, or border areas—entails greater risk. It’s understood that people sometimes incur greater risk for the sake of cherished values. The risk involved in the Shalit deal is at an acceptable level compared to the cherished value of turning Gilad Shalit from an abject prisoner of Hamas, wasting his life in solitary confinement in a dark bunker, into a free man.
Steve writes further that “even if Hornik is correct and the released murderers do not revert to terrorism, the ‘exchange’ that released them was still insane”—because of the high number of murderers released and the horrific nature of their crimes, which indeed include some of the most savage in Israeli history. Here I can only repeat what I wrote in my previous article:
The critics also raise a moral argument: simply, the moral horror entailed by freeing so many killers, some of them responsible for multiple dead and wounded, some of them having been jailed only a few years. The critics are right, and the only question is whether freeing so many terrorists or abandoning Shalit is worse. By my lights, for Israel to violate its obligation to its soldier is an even greater evil.
As many have pointed out, the intense personal concern Israelis feel for Shalit—which contrasts, just as an example, with the lack of widespread concern in America for Bowe R. Bergdahl, the soldier held by the Taliban these past two years—is bound up with an ethos of solidarity and mutual responsibility that is essential to Israel’s endurance in a hostile environment.
That leaves, of course, the question of whether Shalit could have been freed in some other way. For Steve, that issue is clear-cut:
It was clear all along that there were other ways in which Israel and its government could have dealt with the Shalit kidnapping and captivity. Israel could have assassinated 30 terrorists a day and announce that the targeting would continue every day until Shalit was released. Or Israel could have kidnapped the family members of Hamas leaders and held them in captivity until Shalit was free. Or Israel could have executed 30 imprisoned terrorists inside Israeli prison each day.
Better yet, Israel could have eliminated the terrorist “bait” that drives kidnapping in the first place — by executing terrorists….
First of all, I favor the execution of all convicted terrorists; but at the time the Shalit issue emerged, there were already thousands of convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons who could not all be executed.
Second, while it’s possible that various forms of pressure on Hamas could have secured Shalit’s release, and it’s true that a particularly problematic, incompetent Israeli leadership was in place at the time he was kidnapped, it’s far from certain that such measures would have succeeded. America, with its tremendous power and resources, has been able to do nothing for Bergdahl for two years. Steve accuses the current Israeli leadership of “mind-numbing stupidity” and “cowardice.” Either the current U.S. government and defense establishment’s failure to help Bergdahl can be explained by the same afflictions, or hostage situations are inherently difficult and not as easy to resolve as Steve suggests.
They are, in fact, inherently difficult—because the hostage-takers hold the trump card: in response to anything you threaten to do, or actually do, to their side, they can respond by threatening to harm, or actually harming (including torturing and killing) the hostage.
My article also mentioned Ron Arad, the Israeli airman captured in Lebanon in 1986. In 1987, Israel turned down some sort of exchange for his release; instead Israel went on to take tough measures to try and free him. They didn’t succeed, and 25 years after his capture Arad is either dead or leading some sort of horrible life—beyond the individual level, a national trauma for Israel. Netanyahu said the Ron Arad precedent was very much in his mind when taking the decision to secure Shalit’s freedom, and, for my part, I respect him for that.
Finally, my article acknowledged that the Shalit deal indeed reconfirms to Israel’s enemies that kidnapping pays off handsomely. It’s universally acknowledged in Israel that, with Gilad now home, we need to seriously rethink hostage situations and come up with better ways to deal with them. No one wants to keep releasing heinous terrorists. The Shamgar Committee has been working on the issue for a couple of years and we should soon be seeing its recommendations. And the “we” will include Gilad.
FP: Steven Plaut, go ahead.
Plaut: Thanks Jamie.
I still am not convinced that the risks of violence from releasing the murderers is as negligible as David seems to believe. I think, however, that there are persuasive reasons why the release of the terrorists should have been rejected even if David’s projection is correct and little change at the margin in violence results from the “exchange.”
In public life we honor those whom we regard as moral exemplars and heroes. We build statues in their honor and name streets after them. We teach our children to follow their role. In the same manner, it is morally essential that we make it clear that we regard terrorists with contempt. We can do so in many ways. When we do so we are proclaiming that terrorists have, by their behavior, placed themselves outside the framework of civilization, and so are undeserving of prisoner-of-war status.
Dumping bin Laden’s carcass in the sea sent an all-important and powerful moral message. So, by the way, did the executions of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Releasing terrorists, setting them freed to the howls of delight of the savage hordes, is an act of moral obtuseness, impotence and cowardice. It damages our civilization. It legitimizes the terrorists and allows them to serve as role models and heroes for their constituents.
David raises the effect on Israeli morale of releasing Shalit, and I think he means in part on the morale of its soldiers. It is important for them to know they will not be forgotten or abandoned if captured. In David’s words, “By my lights, for Israel to violate its obligation to its soldier is an even greater evil.” But morale is a complex thing. Morale is also affected by witnessing the murderers of one’s children, family members, students, and neighbors walk free, only to be welcomed by cheering throngs of genocidal savages. I do not know how to measure national morale, but when weighing these effects against the morale boost from seeing Shalit free, I do not think Israel has come out ahead.
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