Michael Rubin has again put forward a strong argument as to why Israel’s release of more than 1,000 terrorists is a strategic disaster that has lowered the costs and increased the potential benefits to the terrorists of their actions. He’s also right to call out Benjamin Netanyahu for his hypocrisy on this question, because the prime minister has skewered similar prisoner exchange deals in the past.
But even if we concede these points, as in all honesty, we must, it also must be acknowledged that Netanyahu had no choice but to agree to the deal. Some have dismissed Netanyahu’s motivations as a cynical appeal to popular opinion, but many of those who have criticized the deal need to recognize there was more behind the Israeli consensus in favor of the exchange than mere sympathy for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit and his family. As COMMENTARY contributor Daniel Gordis points out in a particularly insightful article in Foreign Affairs, backing for what even its supporters understand is a lopsided deal, is rooted in a sense of communal solidarity that resonates far more with average Israelis than the cold facts of strategy.
As Gordis points out, what Netanyahu did in agreeing to the swap was to reaffirm the basic social contract of Israeli life. In a small, besieged country where the overwhelming majority of all young men and many young women must serve in the army, the idea of never leaving anyone behind is more than just a function of military esprit de corps as one might find in any elite unit in the U.S. armed forces. Israelis accept the risks of serving as conscripts and then in the reserves for many years on the condition the country’s leadership will not treat them as expendable.
For Israelis, this is not just a matter of accountability but also an integral aspect of social cohesion. They rejoice at the homecoming of Shalit and celebrate Netanyahu’s willingness to make an unpalatable decision that will open him up to severe criticism because they see it as having reinforced the bonds that hold the country together. As Gordis writes, Israelis view this seemingly self-destructive decision that confounds justice with the release of hundreds of murderers as having upheld the core values of the society in which each soldier’s welfare is paramount.
That may not make much sense to those who (not unreasonably) prefer to focus on the geostrategic big picture. But it makes perfect sense to Israelis who pay a high price for their country’s freedom and need to know their nation’s leadership understands this.
Gordis also highlights a point that was key to Evelyn Gordon’s excellent piece on the Shalit dilemma published last year in COMMENTARY. Support for the deal also reflects the Israeli public’s absolute despair about the prospects for peace. Most Israelis understand that many of the killers who are being released this week will return to terrorism and kill more of their countrymen. But since the majority of Palestinians clearly have no interest in peace and regard the spilling of innocent Jewish blood as a form of heroism — as the celebrations for the returning terrorists demonstrate — the release of these killers will have no impact on the future course of the conflict. Israelis believe Hamas and Fatah will fight against peace and security no matter what Israel does, so if securing the release of Shalit – or any other Israeli who is captured in the future — requires the release of terrorists, they think it is worth the price.