Why does Israel keep agreeing to prisoner exchanges?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 15 2008 11:22 AM

Live Terrorists for Dead Bodies

Why does Israel keep agreeing to prisoner exchanges?

Ron Arad. Click image to expand
Ron Arad 

On Sunday evening, the Israeli public got a first look at new photos of Ron Arad, an air force navigator who was captured 22 years ago and has been missing ever since. He is still young in the photos, with the black beard he grew in captivity.

Arad's face is painfully familiar to every Israeli. Every twist and turn in the search for clues that will somehow reveal what happened to him after his airplane was downed over Lebanon is well-documented. His birthday is still celebrated every year by friends and family but also by Israelis who didn't know him or weren't even born when he was taken away. The amount of energy and money the country has invested in trying to recover Arad, dead or alive, is enormous. These newly acquired photos are part of this effort. They were delivered by Hezbollah leaders as part of a prisoner-exchange deal that was ratified by the Israeli Cabinet on Tuesday morning.

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An 80-page report supposedly detailing everything Hezbollah knows about Arad's fate was received along with the new photos. But the report didn't answer the fundamental questions: Where is he now, and what has happened to him in the years since the photos were taken not long after he was captured? A sense of disappointment, even bitterness, started to creep into the daily coverage of the coming deal. That's the way Israelis always react to these deals: First they force the government to sign them, then they start to agonize when they realize that the enemy has once again got away with charging too much for the human commodity it supplied.

This time, it is the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who were snatched in the event that ignited the 2006 Lebanon war. In exchange for these soldiers and the Arad dossier, Israel will return to Hezbollah a number of bodies but also five living Lebanese terrorists. Four of them were captured during the war two years ago, and one, Samir Kuntar, has been sitting in an Israeli prison for 30 years after killing two girls and their father in one of the ugliest attacks Israel has ever known. He was the negotiating card that got Israel the detailed report on Ron Arad.

Emotions in Israel are high whenever a deal like this is under discussion. The public seems to want the "boys" to be returned at whatever price, while the government is always torn between conflicting advice from professionals. In the last couple of weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed to change his mind about the deal every few days. "I haven't yet decided what my position is on the issue," Olmert told Karnit Goldwasser, the wife of Ehud Goldwasser, one of the two soldiers, in an hourlong meeting at the prime minister's residence two weeks ago. This was just three days before the government was scheduled to vote on the deal. Eventually, he came around and supported it—as did most of his ministers.

It is not an easy vote to justify—but it is one that Israeli politicians have been forced to make time and again. Israel released convicted murderers in exchange for hostages in 1985, it returned live prisoners in exchange for body bags in 1996, it has repeatedly negotiated with terrorist organizations for similar purposes. The problem is not that the current deal creates a new precedent but, rather, that it reinforces a well-established weakness: When it comes to the return of hostages, Israel tends to throw all strategic considerations out of the window. The famous example of Entebbe—when Israeli commandos raided a Ugandan airport 32 years ago and liberated dozens of hostages in one of the most heroic forays of the Israel Defense Forces—was the exception, not the rule. The truth is that in most cases, Israel will pay any price to get its soldiers back.

For better or for worse, this is mostly a product of the Israeli psyche. Its force was too strong for Olmert, the struggling, soon-to-be-ousted, leader to resist—but it was also stronger than popular, commanding Ariel Sharon. Sharon once agreed to an outrageous deal in which an Israeli colonel, who also happened to be a drug dealer, returned home in exchange for the release of 450 Lebanese prisoners.

The leaders can hardly claim that the public will not support them. The heartbreaking fate of the families tends to overwhelm more hard-to-define long-term strategic considerations.

It is no wonder that the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, was the most visible opponent of the newest deal, while the military's chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, supported it. Ashkenazi is charged with sending warriors into battle; it is his responsibility to assure every Israeli family that its sons and daughters are in good hands and that they will not be abandoned under any circumstances.

So, it is easy to distinguish between the "calculated" and the "emotional" approaches to hostage deals. The Dagans, who see mostly the downside of these deals—that they provide an incentive for more kidnappings and potentially send released prisoners back into the fray—and the Ashkenazis, who think about the families' suffering and the moral responsibility of their command.

But these are false distinctions. Israel is a society in which everyone knows everyone, in which every soldier's fate matters to every citizen. It is a society that demands that every young man and woman perform military service, a society in which a state of war is a 60-year habit, in which national solidarity is always an existential question. For such a society, looking into the eyes of the father or wife of a kidnapped soldier and telling them that the price is just too high is something no leader is able to do. So, in the case of Israel—a country with a never-ending need for public trust in the military—the "emotional" can be the most "calculated" approach of them all.

Shmuel Rosner is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times, and political editor for the Jewish Journal

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