Defending the Gilad Shalit Deal

Why it was the lesser of two evils.

On Thursday I published an article on that concludes in support of the Gilad Shalit deal. Since then, not surprisingly, strong criticisms have been leveled against the deal, including an article in Friday’s Frontpage by Steven M. Goldberg. While I respect the critics’ arguments and share their distress over the mass release of terrorists, I still think the deal is the lesser evil.

The critics’ main argument concerns security. They say the terrorists to be freed will murder large numbers of Israelis, and that rescuing a single soldier can’t be morally justified if that is the result. The critics base this claim on statistics about terrorists released in previous lopsided Israeli prisoner deals who returned to terror and murdered Israelis.

There are two problems with this argument. One is that the statistics come mostly from periods in which there was rampant anti-Israeli terror in general; both terrorists released in deals and other terrorists were able to perpetrate numerous attacks.

For instance, in the 2004 prisoner deal that is most often cited in this context, Israel freed over 400 security prisoners in return for one live captive, Elhanan Tannenbaum, and the corpses of three soldiers. A 2008 article reported that “from the date of the deal on January 29, 2004, until April 17, 2007, those freed in the deal had murdered 35 Israelis.”

Those were still, however, years of high Israeli casualty tolls from terrorism in general—for instance, over 130 killed in 2004 and over 50 in 2005. In 2009, however, the total came to 6; in 2010, to 11; while the number so far in 2011 is 18. (Statistics are drawn from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Rocket fire from Gaza is a different matter, but it has mostly been nonlethal and a form of psychological warfare.)

Clearly, then, many of the hundreds of terrorists freed in Israel’s prisoner deals are still roaming free, but are much less able to perpetrate attacks—because Israel, mainly by reestablishing its security capabilities in the West Bank, has succeeded in drastically reducing terrorism overall. Those assuming that the terrorists to be freed in the present deal will be able to kill many more Israelis are not taking this into account.

The second problem with the critics’ main argument, the one based on security, is that under the terms of this deal a total of 110 less-dangerous terrorists will be released to the West Bank, and all of the more dangerous ones to Gaza or abroad. As Yoram Cohen, chief of Israel’s Shin Bet (internal security), remarked, “There are 20,000 Izzadin Kassam members in Gaza, and another 200 [terrorists to be sent there] are not going to make a huge difference.” As for the 110 lesser terrorists in the West Bank, it would be surprising if Israel can’t keep a lid on them; and as for those to be sent abroad, it will be hard, of course, for them to effectuate attacks from there.

That is not to say, of course, that there is no risk entailed; only that, in the eyes of Israel’s security chiefs and of most of its population, the risk entailed by the Shalit deal is within the bounds of the acceptable in return for bringing the soldier home.

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.

Some claim, of course, that Israel need not have faced such a dilemma and could have brought about Shalit’s release without freeing terrorists. As Steven M. Goldberg, for instance, wrote on FP:

The [Israeli] Prime Minister could have appeared on television and announced that all food, water, electricity and other goods that had been flowing into Gaza would be stopped until Schalit was released. He could have announced that, should anything happen to Schalit, the consequences to Gaza would be even more devastating. The international community would have screamed about collective punishment, but it’s a sure bet that an urgent effort would have been made to free Schalit to avoid these consequences. It is very possible that such a strong approach would have succeeded in freeing Schalit, especially if the threat were credible. Even if this approach did not convince Hamas to release Schalit unharmed, as long as Israel kept its promise of a crushing retaliation, at least future kidnappings would have been convincingly deterred.

It is just as easy, however, to imagine Hamas—which shows its concern for Gazan civilians by systematically using them as human shields in military engagements with Israel—sitting back and enjoying an all-out anti-Israeli diplomatic frenzy under such a scenario, one that would dwarf the Goldstone Report. I, too, would prefer to live in a world of win-win solutions, not the often infinitely cruel one Israeli political and security leaders have to grapple with.

It should also be noted that Israel used tough measures in trying to free Ron Arad, its airman captured in Lebanon in 1986. These included not only blackmailing and threatening Iran (see Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran) but also kidnapping one of Arad’s captors, Mustafa Dirani, jailing him as counter-ransom (along with another terror leader) for ten years, and torturing him to try and extract information. But none of it worked, and today, 25 years after his capture, Ron Arad is unaccounted for.

The other major contention of the Shalit deal’s critics—to my mind the strongest—is that the deal simply encourages further kidnappings and keeps Israel on the same treadmill that began with its Jibril Deal in 1985. Israel, indeed, has to get off that treadmill, and its leaders realize it. In 2008 Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after one of the least defensible prisoner deals, set up the Shamgar Committee to formulate a new approach. If the “old approach” was still applied to Shalit, who was kidnapped in 2006, it’s apparently because Israel’s top echelon concluded that other possibilities had been exhausted; getting off the treadmill at the expense of his life and freedom was unacceptable.

If, God forbid, I turn out to be wrong and the Shalit deal produces a wave of terror, I’ll have no choice but to acknowledge it. If, though, I’m right and it does not produce one, the critics should acknowledge that, too.