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Israel's Difficult Decision

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
October 17, 2011
Weekly Standard


There is no way around the contradictions and dangers inherent in Israel's decision to free over 1,000 prisoners in order to liberate Gilad Shalit. The only effect of a hard try to square the circle and make every contradiction disappear is a bad headache.

This is because objection and complaint is in its way correct. Yes, this is a victory for Hamas, in that it demonstrates to Palestinians that Hamas is able to free their prisoners when Fatah and the PLO are not. Yes, this gives Hamas an incentive to kidnap another soldier and get back more terrorists in exchange for him. Yes, this is a danger to all Israelis because past recidivism rates among freed terrorists have been very high. Yes, the deal is extremely painful for survivors of Israelis killed by some of the Palestinian terrorists who will now enjoy freedom.

So why do the vast majority of Israelis support the decision? It is not that they, or the Israeli government, overlooked any of these issues. There was an open public debate. On some issues, such as the increased danger of more terrorism, there were powerful counterarguments raised: The head of Israel's FBI equivalent, the Shin Bet, said this week that "there are 20,000 Ezzedine al-Qassam Error on the Hamas military organization fighters in Gaza, another 200 terrorists joining them won't make all the difference."

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not gloss over nor did he deny the difficulty of this thousand-to-one swap. At the opening of the special cabinet meeting called to consider the issue, he said this:

“There is an inbuilt tension between the desire to bring back an abducted soldier, or citizen, and the need to maintain the security of the citizens of Israel. This is my dual responsibility as prime minister.

“The deal I am bringing to the government expresses the right balance between all of these considerations. I do not wish to hide the truth from you—it is a very difficult decision. I feel for the families of victims of terror, I appreciate their suffering and distress, I am one of them. But leadership must be examined at moments such as this, being able to make difficult, but right, decisions.

“I believe that we have reached the best deal we could have at this time, when storms are sweeping the Middle East. I do not know if in the near future we would have been able to reach a better deal or any deal at all. It is very possible that this window of opportunity, that opened because of the circumstances, would close indefinitely and we would never have been able to bring Gilad home at all.”

Those who wish to be a bit cynical can point to the very effective, indeed professionally run, public relations campaign on behalf of the Shalit family. But no such campaign would have worked unless at bottom Israelis believed the argument that lay behind Netanyahu's defense of his decision: There was indeed an unbreakable obligation to bring Shalit home. Here one must acknowledge that Israel is simply different from the United States. Its Jewish population is but 5 million, less than two percent of the total U.S. population. The United States is physically more than 450 times as large as Israel. And Israel, unlike the United States, has a conscript army consisting of young people like Gilad Shalit, and military service is nearly universal. For the great majority of Israelis, then, the soldiers are their children—or at least their neighbors' or cousins' children—and they must be brought home.

From the early days of the state there has been a policy of doing everything possible through military action or covert operations to rescue captives, and when that is impossible to trade for them—but always to recover them. Israel has even traded for the bodies of soldiers who were killed in action. This is the product of the compact between the citizen army and the society: we protect you and you protect us. And this is one of the reasons Israelis always reject efforts, like the Goldstone Report, to punish soldiers for their actions in combat: Again, they are protecting the Jewish state and in turn it will protect them, in the Goldstone case from unjust accusations emanating from the United Nations.

Finally, this policy has deep roots in Jewish history: The ransoming of captives has been practiced by Jews for many centuries and has been regarded as a greater obligation than charity for the poor. It is explicit that even precious religious articles can be sold to obtain funds for gaining the retrieval of captives.

The same religious tradition holds that it is wrong to "overpay" for captives lest kidnappers and enemies be given a greater incentive to take prisoners. So whether in ancient or medieval times or today's state of Israel, the dilemmas cannot be escaped. The dangers and contradictions exist, but, unlike us, Israelis cannot just debate them: they must make decisions. And so they have. Their policy is not ours, as their situation is not ours. But those who think the determination to free Gilad Shalit wrong have at least as heavy a burden—and in humanitarian terms a greater one—to bear than those who believe Israel's government made the right decision.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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