The logic of prisoner swaps dictates that, over time, successive swaps between states and terrorist organizations become more expensive to states. This is because terrorist organizations typically exchange prisoners only when they can declare victory – and victory can hardly be declared if a given deal looks paltry compared to one that preceded it. (On the other hand, when terrorist organizations lose, their captives are, ideally, liberated in the process of their defeat.) For this reason, states engaging in prisoner swap negotiations with terrorist organizations need to keep the possibility of future prisoner negotiations firmly in mind: giving away too much might make future – and possibly more important – prisoner exchanges cost-prohibitive.
In its recent prisoner swap with Hezbollah, Israel seemingly refused to operate under this logic. Indeed, it arguably agreed to the most lopsided prisoner swap in history, receiving two black coffins from Hezbollah in exchange for notorious murderer Samir Kuntar, four Hezbollah militants, and the bodies of 200 Lebanese and Palestinian militants. As a consequence of this strategic folly, the price for recovering Israeli captives – and particularly those that are still alive – has soared.
In this vein, Hamas has named an incredibly steep price in negotiations regarding captured IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit. Consider the following: after Shalit was captured in June 2006, Israel arrested a number of Hamas parliamentarians and ministers, intending to use them as trade bait for negotiating Shalit’s ultimate release. Well, according to Hamas’ most recent demands, the release of these officials will only secure Shalit’s transfer to Cairo, where his family would be able to visit him under the auspices of Egyptian security authorities. Meanwhile, the price for finally returning Shalit to Israel is the release of two top Hamas operatives and, most notably, Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti – the most highly coveted Palestinian prisoner, who is currently serving five life sentences for his direct involvement in deadly terrorist attacks during the second Intifada.
This is a price that Israel cannot afford to pay. Indeed, if Israel includes the popular Barghouti in a deal for Shalit, it will relinquish its most potent chip for strengthening future Palestinian leaders seriously committed to pursuing a peace agreement. It will further exacerbate the soaring price of prisoners: with Barghouti released, what kind of package could Israel meaningfully assemble if it wanted to negotiate the release of future captives?