Commentary Magazine

Ransoming Gilad Shalit

In  May 1985, Israel traded 1,150 terrorists for three captive soldiers in what became known as the Jibril exchange. The freed Palestinians included mass murderers and other heavyweights like Ahmed Yassin, who later founded Hamas. Deadly consequences swiftly ensued: the freed terrorists formed the backbone of the first intifada, which erupted inDecember 1987. A traumatized Israel vowed never again to make such a deal, and for almost 20 years it did not: it released thousands of Palestinian prisoners to bolster the peace process, but not as ransom payments. Thus when air force navigator Ron Arad was captured in 1986, the government negotiated but ultimately deemed the price too high (Arad’s fate remains unknown). Soldiers Joseph Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh were captured and killed that same year, but a deal for their corpses was concluded only 10 years later, after Hezbollah finally agreed to a straightbodies-for-bodies swap. And in 1994, when Hamas kidnapped soldier Nachshon Wachsman, the government launched a commando raid to try to rescue him, in full knowledge that it could end in his death—which it did.

But recently, this consensus has collapsed, seemingly replaced by a new imperative: bring the boys home at any price. So in 2004, Israel freed 435 prisoners in exchange for one civilian (a colonel in the army reserves) and the remains of three soldiers. In 2008, it traded five prisoners, including the vicious killer Samir Kuntar, for the bodies of two soldiers—the first time Israel had ever traded live prisoners for dead bodies. And while a deal has not yet been finalized for Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped in 2006 on the border with the Gaza Strip, it is already clear that any such arrangement will be the most lopsided in Israel’s history.

According to a government affidavit to the High Court of Justice last November, Israel has agreed to trade 1,000 Palestinian prisoners (of whom 20 were already released in exchange for a video proving that Shalit is still alive) for this one soldier. Of these, 45 percent will be chosen by agreement with Hamas, which seeks to free all the worst murderers of the second intifada; the other 55 percent will be at Israel’s discretion. The previous government agreed to 325 of the names on Hamas’s list; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since approved several dozen more. The only unknown is how many. Some media reports say the gap is now about 50 names; others place it as low as 15 or even four.

What has changed over the past decade to make a deal that once would have seemed unacceptable win support from consistently strong majorities in opinion polls while producing what even the New York Times termed “surprisingly little controversy”?

In truth, there have always been powerful factors impelling Israelis to support lopsided deals. But they used to be counterbalanced by concerns over the risks, which are far from trivial. First, by proving that terror pays, such deals encourage terrorism in general, and more abductions in particular. Second, they undermine prospects for peace by proving that violence wins more concessions from Israel than do negotiations. Though Israel has often released prisoners to the Palestinian Authority as a goodwill gesture during talks, the scale of these releases (aside from the thousands freed under the 1993 Oslo Accords) has always been far more modest than what Israel is offering for Shalit—and never, despite repeated pleas from the Palestinians, have they included serial killers. Third, many freed prisoners would certainly resume terrorist activity, resulting in many more dead Israelis, as has happened after every previous deal. And finally, such lopsided deals project an image of weakness, reinforcing a growing Arab conviction that Israeli society is no stronger than a “spider web,” as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said. It would thereby encourage the Arabs to believe that through continued pressure, they can achieve their decades-long dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

But a decade of disillusionment with the peace process has changed Israelis’ perception of these risks, giving them good reasons for dismissing the first two and contributing to a false sense of security about the other two. And with the risks seemingly lessened, the motives driving a deal have gained the upper hand.


The most important of such motives is that in a country where almost all Jewish men do military service, most Israelis can easily imagine their own son, brother, or husband in the hands of Hamas. As former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Dan Halutz said, “a soldier is somebody we all have at home.” As a result, Israelis naturally empathize with the horrible position in which the Shalit family finds itself. They can envision themselves in the very same place, and they know that as parents, they too would pay any price to bring their son home. This empathy not only makes them yearn to end the Shalits’ agony but also creates a self-interested incentive for concluding a deal: by establishing the principle that any ransom, however high, will be paid, they ensure that if their son were abducted tomorrow, he also would be brought home.

Moreover, the importance of redeeming captives has deep roots in Jewish tradition and hence is deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche. The Talmud, for instance, deems captivity worse than death and designates the act of redeeming captives a “great mitzvah”; the Shulchan Aruch, the book that codifies the laws of the Torah, compares someone who postpones ransoming a captive to a murderer. As David Golinkin noted in a 2003 article, this principle has a major caveat: theTalmud says captives should not be ransomed for “more than their value”; later commentators explained that doing so would endanger the public by encouraging more kidnappings. The 13th-centuryGerman rabbi Meir of Rothenburg refused to let his community ransom him and eventually died in captivity. But that was an exception; historically speaking, Jewish communities often paid exorbitant ransoms. The result of this millennia-old tradition is that even secular Israelis, who neither know nor care about the halachic sources, will nevertheless assert passionately thatredeeming captives is the “Jewish” thing to do.

The Shalits, like the families of other captives before them, have worked to amplify these emotions. I can personally attest to this: after publishing a column opposing the deal in the Jerusalem Post last year, I received a phone call the next day from Gilad’s grandfather, Zvi Shalit, who begged me to write a retraction. He did so even though my column was in English, which meant it would have limited impact on Israel’s internal discourse. Leading Hebrew-language journalists, as well as cabinet ministers and Knesset members, are obviously getting much more personal attention. The Shalits have also met with thousands of ordinary Israelis. And firsthand exposure to the family’s anguish can be very powerful: my own feeling after speaking with Zvi Shalit was that had he called before I wrote that column, I might not have written it—because at that moment, no objection seemed worth the price of hurting a thoroughly decent man who was already living in hell.

Even disregarding the impact of the Shalits’ lobbying, it is no surprise that most journalists support the deal; after all, most Israelis do. Hence the relentless stream of pro-ransom punditry swamps the opposition’s output. A typical example was a June 2008 piece by star Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus. Pointedly titled “Yes, at Any Price,” it urged politicians to “stop being heroes at the expense of our captive soldiers and their parents. Bring them home without delay, no matter how much it costs. Yes, at any price.”

The result is a feedback loop. Ordinary Israelis’ natural sympathy with the Shalits is amplified by the media barrage; that sympathy then spurs the media to new efforts to pressure the government; senior ministers respond by proclaiming the supreme importance of bringing Gilad home; these statements reinforce the public’s belief that a deal is justified—and so forth.

And mixed with all this is a real policy concern: while military service is mandatory in Israel, participation in combat units is strictly voluntary, and there is fear that if the government is perceived as indifferent to the fate of its soldiers, motivation to serve will decline.

Nevertheless, all these factors existed 20 years ago as well. Israelis did not love their children any less back then, nor was redeeming captives less of a Jewish value. What has changed, drastically, is the perception of the risks that used to counterbalance these forces. And that change can only be understood against the background of a peace process gone sour.


In 1993 it was an article of faith for manyIsraelis that redressing Arab grievances would bring peace. And since Oslo did not fully redress those grievances, this belief survived the initial wave of terror that followed the accord. But it began to crack after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000. The UN Security Council certified the withdrawal as complete to the last inch; and with that, Israelis believed, their dispute with Lebanon had been resolved, even though no peace treaty was signed.

Five months later, in October 2000, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah proved otherwise. First it kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid; then, nine days later, it kidnapped an Israeli civilian overseas. This was not merely a resumption of hostilities but rather an escalation. In the 18 years during which Israel had occupied south Lebanon, Hezbollah had never perpetrated either a cross-border or an overseas abduction. Then, in 2006, it staged another cross-border kidnapping, of the soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, sparking that year’s war with Lebanon.

Moreover, it soon became clear that Hezbollah’s demands were insatiable. First, it insisted that Israel leave Shaba Farms, a contested area to Israel’s north, which UN Security Council mapping experts had certified as Syrian, not Lebanese. Then, in July 2008, when it looked as if Israel might actually depart Shaba Farms, Hezbollah unveiled its next demand, this time that Israel depart seven villages inside Israeli territory whose Shiite inhabitants had fled in 1948.

Israelis made the same bitter discovery—that territorial withdrawal was not a precursor to peace—following Israel’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Nobody expected the conflict with the Palestinians to end as a result. But Israelis did expect hostilities to shift from liberated Gaza to theoccupied West Bank, since that was the obvious strategy for securing further withdrawals: make Gaza a model of peaceful coexistence while making the West Bank a hellhole from which Israelis would gladly flee.

Instead, the opposite happened. In 2006, the first full year after the pullout, the number of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza more than tripled compared with 2004, from 268 to 861; altogether, almost 6,000 rockets and mortars were launched between the disengagement and the January 2009 Gaza war. During those same years, terror plummeted in the West Bank, thanks to Israeli counterterrorism operations.

Moreover, Hamas, which openly calls for Israel’s destruction, won the Palestinian Authority election in January 2006. Thus Israelis felt that after having proved their desire for peace by leaving Gaza and uprooting 25 Jewish settlements, Palestinians responded not in kind but by repudiating any desire for peace.

In between the Lebanon withdrawal in 2000 and the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 came the second intifada, which produced more Israeli casualties in four years than all the terror attacks of the previous 53 years combined. Had it begun because peace talks were hopelessly stalled, Israelis might have understood. Instead, it commenced two months after the July 2000 Camp David summit, at which then prime minister Ehud Barak offered a Palestinian state in Gaza, most of the West Bank, and part of East Jerusalem.

Taken together, these three events leftIsraelis profoundly disillusioned. Thrice Israel had made major gestures for peace. And in exchange, it got not peace but war. Hence many Israelis reached an unsettling conclusion: groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are not in the terror business to resolve grievances. They are in the terror business to inflict pain on Israel, and, if possible, to destroy it.

If so, it really does not matter if the Shalit deal proves that terror pays, because the “pay”—i.e., the freed prisoners—is not the terrorists’ goal, any more than “ending the occupation” was. Their goal is simply to wound Israel. And a kidnapped soldier does that whether Israel pays ransom or not. In fact, the pain is arguably greater if Israel does not pay. Hence ransom cannot increase the terrorists’ motivation; their goal is fully achieved the moment a kidnapping occurs.


Disillusionment also explains why the very logical claims that the deal will undermine prospects for peace leave Israelis unmoved. Here, the key is what happened after Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Yasir Arafat as chairman of the Palestinian Authority in November 2004. Hamas and Hezbollah are religious-extremist organizations, so their disinterest in peace did not necessarily mean peace was unachievable with the secular Fatah. And Arafat had been an arch-terrorist, Israel’s Public Enemy No. 1 for decades; the fact that he proved unregenerate did not mean everyone in Fatah was equally unregenerate. But Abbas was supposed to be different: he was the “moderate” who publicly denounced terror at the height of the intifada.

Instead, not only didAbbas continue Arafat’s policy of refusing to fight terror; his negotiating positions proved no less intransigent than Arafat’s. He never ceased demanding that Israel absorb millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, who, combined with Israel’s Arab citizens, would outnumber its Jews and could thus vote the Jewish state out of existence. He refused to agree to Israeli retention of the settlement blocs, even under a 1-to-1 territorial exchange. Instead, he insisted that Israel evict hundreds of thousands of settlers from their homes—which is economically and politically unfeasible. And he scorned any proposal that so much as acknowledged historic Jewish ties to the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem.

In short, Abbas rejected the absolute maximum that any Israeli government could contemplate giving, and since he genuinely does represent the most moderate Palestinian positions out there, that means no peace deal is conceivable in the foreseeable future. Thus, if prospects for peace are zero in any case, then the Shalit deal can hardly make peace less likely in the near term, despite bolstering Hamas at Fatah’s expense. And in the long run, will the grandchildren of current Palestinian leaders really refuse to make peace in 50 years because Israel trades 1,000 terrorists for one soldier today? For most Israelis, this argument cannot justify letting Shalit languish in Hamas captivity. His suffering, and his family’s, are real, and Israelis see no point in prolonging it for the sake of the fantasy that Fatah might make peace if only Israel refrained from strengthening Hamas via this deal.


The above arguments, however, raise an obvious question: if Israelis are convinced that peace is not in the offing and that terrorist groups are panting to perpetrate attacks, why would they want to facilitate such attacks by releasing hundreds of leading terrorists—the very people whose skills could turn this desire into reality?

Ironically, this prospect holds less terror forIsraelis in part because of the successful response to the second intifada, which taught them that there is a military solution to terror. The elements of that military solution are still in place: the Israel DefenseForces’ control of the West Bank, a first-rateintelligence network, and the security fence. Yet freed terrorists might still kill many Israelis before being recaptured or killed themselves. The problem is, Israelis lack information as to the extent of this danger. They know freed terrorists sometimes resume killing, but they do not know what percentage of freed terrorists do so, how many Israelis such terrorists have killed, or who those Israelis are. They do not know because, while Israeli security agencies presumably track this data, they have never published it. And the estimates that appear in the press vary so wildly—I have seen figures ranging from 13 percent to 80 percent for the proportion of freed terrorists who return to terror—that assessing the threat’s true magnitude is impossible.

There are grounds for thinking it is substantial. In 2007, for example, the Almagor Terror VictimsAssociation published a list of 30 attacks committed by freed terrorists from 2000 to 2005, which together killed 177 Israelis. In September 2009, IDF Colonel Herzl Halevy told the daily Maariv that terrorists freed in the 2004 swap with Hezbollah comprised “the entire infrastructure of Islamic Jihad” in subsequent years, during which Islamic Jihad bombings killed at least 37 Israelis. But neither data from interested parties nor off-the-cuff statements have the persuasive power of hard numbers from a reliable official source.

The lack of data also creates another problem: an imbalance of personalization. In a perceptive column last December, Haaretz diplomatic commentator Aluf Benn noted that various ministerial forums have held dozens of meetings on Shalit over the past three years, while far more fateful moves—like Olmert’s decisions to launch the Second Lebanon War or to make Abbas Israel’s most far-reaching peace offer ever—were made with almost no discussion. The reason for this seeming paradox, he argued, is that the Shalit deal “has a face—both our prisoner and their prisoners. The minute the debate moves from the general to the personal, it turns into an emotional issue. Everyone can put themselves, or their child, in Shalit’s place and imagine his terrible suffering, just as it is much easier to raise money for a specific child who needs a bone marrow transplant than for 1,000 anonymous recipients.”

Yet Benn is only half right. Shalit indeed has a face; Israelis see it in the media almost every day. In contrast, those who will be killed by any terrorists traded for Shalit are inevitably faceless, since nobody yet knows who they are. And due to the lack of data, so are the victims of previous exchanges.

Just how much personalization matters was demonstrated by the murder of Rabbi Meir Avshalom Chai in December 2009. Of his three killers, one was a recently freed prisoner and another a wanted man to whom Israel had granted amnesty under a deal with the PA. The day after this emerged, two Haaretz reporters who had previously supported the Shalit deal (albeit unenthusiastically) published a sobering reflection: “That former terrorists should take up arms after their release should give Israel pause ahead of the expected release of more than 1,000 other prisoners, many of them former terrorists, in exchange for Gilad Shalit.”

The authors, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, are veteran correspondents who cover military and Palestinian affairs, respectively; they know former terrorists sometimes resume terror. So why did it not give them pause before Chai’s murder? It was because until that moment, the price for releasing these prisoners was an abstraction. Now it had a face: Rabbi Meir Avshalom Chai, father of seven.

Fortunately, this information deficit is reparable. All it would take is legislation requiring that the security services publish regular data on what percentage of freed terrorists have resumed terror (possibly including a breakdown based on why they were freed), how many people they have killed, and who the victims are. Such legislation might well be resisted, precisely because it would limit the government’s freedom to negotiate. Yet if such a measure could be passed, this data would inform the debate about future exchanges by making the costs clearer—and might thereby help to change Israeli minds.


Israelis’ dismissal of the final risk factor—that the deal projects weakness and thereby feeds Arab fantasies of someday eradicating the Jewish state—has also been exacerbated by a decade that brought three military conflicts: Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and the 2009 war in Gaza. Ignoring what non-Israelis think is anyway a venerable Israeli tradition, encapsulated in the oft-quoted aphorism by the country’s founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say; it matters what the Jews do.” Nor is this attitude without reason. If, for instance, Israel had listened to the naysayers in 1948, the state would never have been established. Similarly, heeding global denunciations of Israel’s counterterrorism efforts would cost countless Israeli lives.

To many Israelis, the Shalit deal is a classic case in which ignoring what the Arab world thinks is justified—because why worry about a fantasy? And the idea that the Arabs could eradicate Israel strikes them as exactly that.1 This is not only because of Israel’s economic and military superiority but also because the decade’s conflicts have shown that far from being the “spider web” of Nasrallah’s fond imaginings, Israel remains a country whose citizens are willing to defend it as often as necessary. In all three conflicts, response rates to call-ups of the reserves were almost 100 percent, far higher than in call-ups for ordinary duty. In short, when their country needed defending, moreIsraelis wanted to fight, despite the increased chance of being wounded or killed. That is not the response of a society about to collapse.

Yet for all its seeming logic, this disregard of Arab attitudes is a serious mistake, precisely because of the failure of the peace process. For if the Arabs’ goal is not to resolve legitimate grievances but rather to destroy Israel, then the only hope of someday achieving peace is to convince them that this is an unachievable fantasy, so they are better off settling for half a loaf. And that cannot be done if Israel continues projecting weakness through lopsided exchanges like the Shalit deal.

Because this argument utilizes Israeli disillusionment with the peace process rather than ignoring it, it has far more potential to persuade Israelis than, for instance, fear of bolstering Hamas at the expense of Abbas’s faction, Fatah. It is thus a hopeful sign that some critics of the deal have begun focusing on this issue. In December, for instance, the veteran journalist Amir Oren published a column in Haaretz entitled “The Weakest Tribe,” in which he argued that the Middle East is still a tribal region where being the strongest tribe matters. Instead, Israel “is acting like the weakest tribe in the region, thereby inviting threats.” And “the most depressing manifestation of Israel’s weakness is the Gilad Shalit deal.”

To be effective, however, this argument cannot be trotted out just when a ransom deal is in the offing. Only a long-term campaign can produce such a major shift in the Israeli perspective. It is probably already too late for such a campaign to influence any agreement concerning Shalit. But if vigorously pursued over time, rather than being allowed to lapse once the Shalit saga ends, it has the potential to significantly alter Israelis’ view of future ransom deals.


No one should expect the Shalits, or any other family whose loved one is in the hands ofIsrael’s enemies, to be as wise or self-sacrificing as Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was in the Middle Ages. Weighing the deal’s costs and benefits to the country as a whole is not the family’s job but that of the government. Yet so long as the only factors in the equation that determine Israeli thinking are love of their children and the imperative to ransom captives, no political leader is likely to have the courage to resist the overwhelming public pressure for a deal. So there will be more Gilad Shalits, and the price the country will pay for their freedom will go even higher.

If this calculus is ever to be altered, it is vital for Israelis and their leaders to grasp the way in which despair about the peace process has undermined certain traditional arguments against such deals—and why, viewed properly, this despair actually lends new weight to other key arguments. For only by utilizing the lessons of the past two decades rather than ignoring them can a new Israeli consensus be forged against ransom payments that expose countless others to death from released killers and perpetuate Arab fantasies of Israel’s destruction.


1 The same cannot be said of the nuclear threat from Iran, which is not an Arab but a Persian country and whose shadow unnerves Israelis of all ideological stripes.

About the Author

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist living in Israel and the author of “The Deadly Price of Pursuing Peace,” which appeared in our January issue.

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