The Strategic Failure of the Shalit Exchange

As the jubilation fades, the dangerous reality sets in.

Like so many others in Israel, I watched the special telecast of the return home of Gilad Shalit, 25, on Mabat/Channel One TV, and along with most Israelis I was moved by the warm embrace between father (Noam) and his son following the long struggle to bring him home after five years and four months of agonizing captivity. The Shalit family deserved a happy ending considering the tragedy the family already endured in losing Noam’s twin brother in the Yom Kippur war.  But is this prisoner exchange with Hamas strategically good for Israel as a nation?

In the short term, the left-leaning Israeli media that campaigned vigorously on behalf of a prisoner exchange, and emotionally engaged the entire nation in seeking Gilad’s return, will give Prime Minister Netanyahu full credit for his release. Soon enough, however, the 1027 Palestinian terrorists, most with blood on their hands, will return to their murderous activities, something the Hamas leadership assured us they will be encouraged to do.  The Israeli media will then point an accusing finger at the Likud government, and Netanyahu’s tactical and temporary triumph will disappear in what pundits will see as his strategic mistake.

Ironically, it was Benjamin Netanyahu who wrote in his 1995 book, Fighting Terrorism: How the West Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism that “Refusing to release terrorists from prison was one of the most important policies that must be adopted in the face of terrorism.” Netanyahu added, “By leading terrorists to believe that their demands will be met, they encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they are supposed to defuse.”  As the opposition leader in 2008, Netanyahu opposed Prime Minister Olmert’s deal to free terrorists, arguing that “this would weaken Israel and strengthen the terror elements.”

The deal made with Hamas to exchange the prisoners has to be considered one of Israel’s most dramatic intelligence failures.  It is, first and foremost, a blow to Israel’s credibility as an uncompromising combatant of terrorism.  For decades Israel preached to the Western world the mantra of “terrorism must be fought, not negotiated with,” a lesson the U.S. and Russia learned well but apparently not Israel.

The exchange sends a clear message to Hamas and other enemies of Israel that the Jewish State’s resolve has weakened, and that the will to find ingenious ways to free its captives has now withered away.  People still remember how the Israelis in July 1976, crossed continents to rescue hundreds of Israelis and Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, killing the Arab and German terrorists and safely bringing the hostages home.

The world, which admired Israel’s courage and ingenuity in rescuing hundreds of hostages, cannot understand why a nation with one of the best intelligence services, and with one of the most advanced technological capabilities, along with an experienced military, was unable to discover where Shalit was kept (he was known to be in Gaza, only a few miles away from the border with Israel) and find a way to rescue him during the past five years.  Moreover, Israel failed to mobilize compelling pressure on Hamas, and in the end had to give in and deal with Hamas.

The ethos of the IDF, an army of the people in which everyone serves as opposed to an army of professional soldiers, is that everything will be done to bring a soldier home.  In contrast to the U.S. and armies of NATO nations where service is voluntary, the government is not obliged to trade terrorists for the lives of captive soldiers.

Appeals made to the Israeli High Court of Justice by the families of victims, who attempted to prevent the release of the killers who murdered their loved ones, were turned down.  MK Dr. Arieh Eldad (National Unity Party), in an interview with Israel’s Channel One TV Mabat, warned that the government should not take down the Shalit protest tent since it will be needed by future families whose sons will be kidnapped and used as bargaining chips to compel Israel to release even more terrorist murderers from prison.

In the meantime, an Israeli TV broadcast aired showing Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ “Prime Minister,” giving a speech during the victory celebrations held in Gaza’s main square, in which he declared, “Palestinians will not be satisfied with 22% of Palestine, we want the 1948 territories [Israel] as well.”  This was an intentional jab at Mahmoud Abbas for having talked to the Israelis and having achieved nothing, while Hamas was able to deliver terrorists who will fight Israelis again.

Haniyeh gave an especially warm welcome to Yehya Al-Sinwar, a top Hamas security strategist who spent 23 years in an Israeli prison. Al-Sinwar called on the Hamas military wing to “kidnap more Israeli soldiers in order to free the remaining prisoners in Israeli jails.”

While Israelis felt good about Gilad Shalit’s return home and most were willing to pay the price, Israelis are also realistic about the increased vulnerability to their safety.  A Mabat/Israeli Channel One TV survey revealed that 63% believe “Israel paid too high a price for the Shalit deal.”

The survey also found that 70% believe that Israel must limit the release of terrorists and 82% believe that more soldiers will be kidnapped. Yet, 80% believed that Netanyahu acted the right way.  A surprising 64% believed that the media have put too much pressure on the government to go through with the Shalit deal. Finally, 67% believe that more terror will result from the prisoner exchange.

The long-term prognosis for Israel’s security following this prisoner exchange is negative. Had there been greater resolve and less defeatism by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the outcome could have been much more positive for Israel. During the Cast Lead Israeli operation against Hamas in Gaza, PM Olmert wanted Hamas to think that Israel intended to capture the Hamas leadership.  For Haniyeh Jabari and the others, saving their skins was of paramount importance.  Had Barak not spoken publicly of a “humanitarian corridor,” which enabled the top leadership to flee, the Hamas leaders would have been captured and exchanged for Shalit.

According to the intelligence reports at the time, Shalit was kept in the Rafah area and Olmert proposed to dispatch a full brigade to Rafah, but was opposed by Barak and others. Cast Lead was a tactical victory for Israel, but a strategic defeat. Gilad Shalit, the most valuable asset Hamas ever had, remained in their hands while Israel continued to remove red-lines until it finally surrendered this week.

Today the Israeli nation is proud and elated at the return of Gilad Shalit.  As Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu declared, “Today, Gilad is everyone’s son who has returned home.” Tomorrow, however, is another story…

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