Max is right that the prisoner exchange Israel is about to conclude with Hamas is an enormous victory for terrorism and a blow to Israeli security. Evelyn Gordon summed up the problems inherent in this deal in her definitive COMMENTARY article on the subject in May 2010, when she pointed out the impetus to free so many killers in exchange for one Israeli was a manifestation of the country’s weakness and its despair about the prospects for peace.
Though the Shalit deal is undoubtedly a mistake that will come back to haunt Israel, it is an unavoidable one. Those who will flay Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being so foolish as to let 1,000 Palestinians, including convicted mass murderers, go free, need to remember that in doing so he is obeying the dictates of Jewish tradition: the ransoming of captives. It is also a fact that no leader of a democratic country can resist the pressure to save hostages, as Ronald Reagan proved in the 1980s when he traded for American captives held by Iran’s terrorist allies. What was true for Reagan is also the case for Netanyahu.
The concept of pidyon shvuyim, or the redemption of captives, is a religious imperative for Judaism, with deep roots in centuries of suffering. Jewish communities in the Diaspora have traditionally reduced themselves to penury to save hostages and done so with the approval of religious authorities.
In modern Israel, this tradition has become incorporated in the process whereby the families of those who were taken by the enemy become a permanent presence in the media and the political culture of the nation. Gilad Shalit wasn’t just an anonymous Israeli solider but, in the view of most Israelis, everyone’s son–who must be returned to his family at any cost. The pressure such families, the media and their sympathizers among the general public, place on the government is enormous.
Objectively viewed, Netanyahu’s decision makes no sense, because as both Evelyn and Max have rightly argued, the only winner here is Hamas, which has profited greatly by the kidnapping. The prestige of the terrorist organization will soar among Palestinians and that of the allegedly more moderate Fatah will drop. If, as is rumored, Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who presided over that group’s terror campaign (and for which he is currently serving several life terms for mass murder) is among those released, it will be a bitter blow to Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, who sees the convicted killer as a possible rival.
But all that pales in comparison to the overwhelming sentiment among Israelis that Shalit cannot be allowed to rot in captivity if there is a chance he might be ransomed. Israelis will rue the price of that ransom, but also take some perverse satisfaction in the fact they value the life of one Jew as being worth that of 1,000 Arab terrorists and killers. It may be the right thing would be for Netanyahu to refuse to agree to such a lopsided trade. But is there any politician in Israel or the United States who would be willing to tell the Shalits their boy must die to uphold a principle? The Israeli public’s conviction that Shalit must be freed no matter what was so strong, no leader could have stood against it.