Getting the Shalit Deal Straight

How the negotiating paradigm must be changed.

Much has been written of late about the so-called “1000 to 1” prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, involving kidnapped Israel soldier Gilad Shalit and a horde of Palestinian terrorists and terror enablers. Israeli public sentiment seems massively behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to sign off on so lopsided a transaction, rescuing a single captive held for five years in illegal detention at the price of releasing a veritable army of conscienceless murderers.

The Israeli intellectual community, however—or at least that part of it not associated with the political left—by and large regards this species of human barter with overt revulsion, arguing that saving the life of a single Israeli citizen comes at the cost of future massacres perpetrated by the same terrorists who have been freed. They also contend that the exchange can only provide an incentive to future kidnappings and that Israel’s bargaining posture has been severely weakened.

There are exceptions. Writing in FrontPage Magazine, my epistolary friend David Hornik, while expressing some misgivings, gives several apparently credible reasons in support of the prisoner swap: Israel has upgraded its ability to defend against terrorist attacks; the released malefactors will be distributed across several different regions where they are likely to be rendered comparatively innocuous; and “for Israel to violate its obligation to its soldier is an even greater evil” than the moral horror entailed by freeing so many killers.” But Hornik appears to be in the minority.

His compatriot Steven Plaut thinks otherwise, raising at least an equal number of apparently credible reasons to deplore the exchange of a single kidnapped Israeli soldier for 1000 Palestinian criminals, many of whom are diehard terrorists. “It was a cynical slap in the face to the victims of those terrorists,” he writes. Additionally, Israel has once again shown itself incapable of resisting extortion. Moreover, the political leadership had other ways to deal with the situation, such as “assassinat[ing] 30 terrorists a day…or kidnapp[ing] the family members of Hamas leaders…until Shalit was free,” or simply instituting the death penalty since ‘no one has ever been murdered by a terrorist who has already been executed.”

Others like Isi Leibler are in staunch agreement with Plaut. “Continuing to capitulate to [the Palestinians’] excessively disproportionate demands,” Leibler warns, “will inevitably culminate in greater disasters.” Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick believes that the “position that releasing 1,027 terrorists would not endanger Israel [is] demonstrably false” and that the public consensus for the deal will soon evaporate. Louis Rene Beres, professor of Political Science at Purdue University, asserts that under the legal principle of Nullum crimen sine poena (no crime without a punishment), codified in international law, no government “has the legal right to free terrorists in exchange for its own kidnapped citizens.” It remains the legal obligation of the state to incapacitate such criminals, known in law as Hostes humani generis (Common enemies of mankind), “from committing new acts of mass murder.”

One wonders, though, if Plaut, Glick, Leibler, Beres, Spyer et al. had been in Gilad Shalit’s shoes, incarcerated for five years without contact with the outside world and expecting to be executed by his terrorist captors, whether they would have honorably rejected the exchange worked out by the Israeli government and refused to be liberated. Perhaps they would have. I know I wouldn’t. If Gilad had been their son, would they have demonstrated with seminarian righteousness in front of the Knesset to abandon him to his captivity, on the grounds that his release would only incentivize the terrorists to pursue their kidnapping strategy? I know I wouldn’t have. I would have acted precisely as Noam Shalit did and kept up unrelenting pressure on politicians and legislators to arrange my son’s freedom. I am aware how easy it is to maintain a noble, rational and sacrificially patriotic posture when one is not personally implicated, like those Western Islamicists who lost no one in the Twin Towers or do not have to live with lifelong mutilations.

Jonathan Spyer has addressed this issue in a particularly subtle and brilliant way. “The seemingly simple, impassioned statement—‘what if it was your son who had been kidnapped’—is…an accurate reflection of the attitude of a large body of Israeli Jews today vis à vis the collective ‘Israeliness’ to which they belong.” It is precisely this attitude, this “possibly dysfunctional version of communal concern” which makes no strategic sense, on which Israel’s enemies “have pinned their hopes of eventual victory.” He concludes that “the question  of how adequately to combine the modernity of outlook essential for social and economic success, with the communal commitment necessary for societal survival, remains a central and currently insufficiently answered one for Israel.” There is no simple resolution to the dilemma confronting the nation. Nevertheless, when it comes down to the level of the individual, who among us, Spyer included, would be willing, Abraham-like, to sacrifice his child to a higher strategic or commanding purpose?

But one has to be careful how one endorses the decision of the Israeli government to enact so incommensurate and precarious an arrangement. The celebrated Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua is all for the exchange. But the apologia he cites for his enthusiasm unfortunately betokens the growing silliness of his political convictions, so typical of the unreconstructed and reality-challenged Left—for example, that the freed murderers “could also be influenced by the positive atmosphere created by the Palestinian Authority as it awaits the resumption of negotiations to achieve a two-state (and two-population) solution.” What gauzy fantasy world have Yehoshua and his kind been living in? The PA continues to incite rabid anti-Jewish hatred throughout all its institutions and has by-passed negotiations, as well as violated the Oslo Accords, by pursuing statehood via UN fiat. Such reasoning is so patently ludicrous that it actually inhibits approval of the exchange and makes one despair of the sanity of much of the Israeli nomenklatura.

At the same time, it is perfectly clear that the negotiating paradigm currently in place needs to be changed and replaced by a harsher and more appropriate way of dealing with prisoner exchanges. Spyer’s suggestion that Israel kidnap the family members of the terrorist leadership to be held ransom for its own abducted citizens, be they soldiers or civilians, seems eminently reasonable—assuming, of course, that the terrorist cadres actually care for the preservation of their families. The execution of terrorists who maim and murder Israelis may well function as a legitimate legal deterrent; after all, the American military has no compunction carrying out extra-legal executions-by-drone. Further, why Israel did not immediately turn off the electric power it supplies to keep Gaza running and shut down the border crossings from which Hamas derives hundreds of thousands of tons of domestic material annually from the Jewish state until Shalit had been returned is beyond me. If trading 1000 “homicidal sadists” (to cite Sarah Honig) for a lone soldier is acceptable, then it follows that braving the hypocritical outcry of the anti-Israel “international community,” which would have condemned Israel for acting exactly as they would have done under similar circumstances, is equally tolerable.

Gilad Shalit is home now after his long (and possibly avoidable) ordeal, and this is ample reason to rejoice. If we are candid with ourselves, we would admit that most of us, had we been personally implicated, would have proceeded no  differently from the Israeli prime minister. But the arbitration model Israel has adopted and acted upon is undeniably obsolete and counter-productive, and must be revised to take unforgiving reality into account. For everyone knows that another Gilad Shalit is just waiting to happen.

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