Symposium: The Deal For Gilad Shalit

Two Frontpage columnists battle it out on what Israel gave up to get back its kidnapped soldier.

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


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 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.

I concede that David’s skepticism about the potential of military actions to free Shalit may be correct.  Neither of us are military people and I never rose above the rank of private.  At the same time, I do believe that it was possible to kidnap or quietly whisk away family members of Hamas leaders and hold them hostage until Shalit’s release.  These people are not hard to find and such actions should have been feasible.  David is correct that kidnapping terror leaders in Lebanon by Israel – including those directly involved in the kidnapping of Ron Arad - failed to win Arad’s release.  But that was no reason NOT to do those operations, and the later release of those terrorists by Israel in yet another act of “exchange” (or what I prefer to call “human trafficking” with terrorists) was one of the worst national disgraces in Israel’s history.

I certainly hope that David is not serious when he predicts the fact that a government commission chaired by a retired judge (Shamgar) will come up with some sort of “solution” to the problem of terrorists kidnapping Israelis to force it to release imprisoned terrorists.  Israel’s judges have a long track record of being more concerned with the “civil rights” of terrorists, including their right to do college degrees by distance learning while in prison, than with the security of Israeli citizens.  And government commissions cannot get the post office to deliver the mail properly.

Without getting into a side debate about the United States policy regarding its kidnapped personnel, which David raises, I just wanted to point out one thing.  After World War II, the massacre of American GIs by Germans in Malmedy, Belgium became widely known.  I cannot believe the United States would have released the murderers of those troops and allowed them to go free, no matter what the “deal” offered and no matter what the extortion being attempted.  And the victims were soldiers, not children.

Hornik: Of course I agree with Steve and all the opponents of the Shalit deal that the price of releasing the terrorists was a terrible one to pay, including for the reasons Steve mentions here. There’s no point reiterating the fact that I see it has having been the lesser evil in this case. Steve raises the question, though, of what I meant in saying that “By my lights, for Israel to violate its obligation to its soldier is an even greater evil.”

I didn’t mean this mainly for reasons of IDF morale. One expert on the IDF, defending the Shalit deal, writes that “the possible erosion of combat motivation among Israel’s military personnel” poses the greatest possible threat to the country’s existence and preventing it is the supreme consideration. It’s a serious point, but still a speculative one. I know of no evidence or indications that IDF morale declined as a result of Shalit’s captivity, or would have had he stayed in captivity—though it’s possible.

My point is simpler: failing to go through with this deal at this time probably would have meant permanently abandoning Shalit to his fate. The moral obligation to rescue him is clear and doesn’t need elucidation. Not at unacceptable risk—but as I’ve already explained, I see the risk incurred in this case as within the bounds of the acceptable. If so, then, morally speaking, I prefer releasing the terrorists to abandoning Shalit—with the condition that we recognize that we’ve gone far down a slippery slope and need to change course. This is indeed widely recognized in Israel.

As for a counter-kidnapping of family members of Hamas leaders, assuming it would have been technically feasible now that Israel has left Gaza, I think the legal problems Israel would have encountered—both within Israel and abroad—would have been immense considering that these would have been defined as innocent civilians. Immense and insurmountable, so that, in an embarrassing, counterproductive failure, Israel would have been forced to free the individuals. That is not to say I oppose tough, imaginative measures like counter-kidnappings in principle, but it depends on whom one kidnaps.

By the time of the Shalit deal, though, Shalit may well have been on the verge of disappearing into the maw of a Muslim Brotherhood Egypt, and time was not on our side. But here it should be stressed that Israel did seek a military solution to his captivity. Great intelligence resources were invested in trying to locate him in Gaza so as to make that possible. However, for reasons not yet known, Israel’s vaunted intelligence agencies were unable to locate him, narrowing Israel’s options. (At least, I've read several articles to this effect and no contradictory accounts.)

As for the Shamgar Commission, let’s see first what they have to say. But I’m not a shill for this commission and the main thing is that someone in Israel formulate guidelines for future kidnapping situations, if there will be any, that can prevent paying exorbitant prices. I’ve seen interesting suggestions and think it’s possible. But we need to have a clear approach and to apply it from the start.

Plaut: I think David and I are pretty close to agreement. I distrust public commissions and do not think it is the proper role of judges to make military policy or any national policy. I also think that the legal aspects of Israel engaging in counter-kidnapping should be ignored by Israel. There are problems of state for which "law" is irrelevant.  We do not read Miranda rights to combatants in war and we do not need any legal briefs from bespectacled lawyers to take action against terrorists.

Yes, I think that concerns about eroding national morale in Israel are in order, particularly because the politicians of the major parties have been eroding it intentionally so badly with thir countless appeasements, acts of cowardice, and the idiotic "peace process" games of pretense.  I certainly do not wish to see any other Israeli soldier disappear from the face of the planet in Ron Arad manner.  But I also think there are worse things that can happen to the country than another Ron Arad Affair, worse things that have already happened.  As badly as I feel over the victimization of Ron Arad and his family, I am more concerned about the loss in will among many Israelis to resist Islamofascist aggression and international pressures on Israel to capitulate.

I also reject the idea that the same Israel that freed the hundred Entebbe hostages using military force had no viable military options against the kidnappers of Shalit (and the kidnappers of Arad).

Hornik: The army couldn’t attempt a rescue operation of Shalit if it didn’t know where he was. Apparently, intelligence tried for years to locate him but failed. We've discussed whether other options may have worked, and I don't discount it but am less sure.

More generally, there is no question that Israeli leaders have made horrendous blunders especially since the early-1990s Oslo era began. I think I’m more inclined than Steve, though, to accept that in some cases Israeli political and military leaders are constrained by cruel realities and have to make difficult compromises.

Plaut: Well, I do not think the military was making serious efforts to locate and rescue Shalit.  I of course am just an outside civilian kibbitzer, not an intelligence officer, but a military that regularly locates and targets Hamas terrorist leaders, coached by an American military that found bin Laden, could have found Shalit.  Room by room searches in the whole Gaza Strip, if necessary, maybe with body cavity searches for the Hamas leaders.

Hornik: It took the U.S. ten years from 9/11 to find Bin Laden.  Beyond that observation, we can, of course argue these things indefinitely.

FP: David Hornik and Steven Plaut, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.

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