Thursday, October 13, 2011

Israel's Terrible Blunder

Israel is usually pretty smart when it comes to security and mitigating the threats from terror. There is, however, one area where they repeatedly fail to maintain their vaunted standards: their willingness to negotiate for hostages. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Tuesday that the Israelis had reached a deal with Hamas, the terrorist group and Gaza's governing regime, for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit, who was abducted five years ago by Hamas agents, will be swapped for some 1,000 Hamas prisoners currently being held in Israeli prisons, many of whom are serving life sentences for terrorism.

The deal, however, is dreadfully foolish. By rewarding Hamas's kidnapping, the Israelis are only facilitating the re-occurrence of such heinous events. It is never wise to provide hostage-takers with incentives to continue their behavior. The payment of ransoms is a sure way to put future Israelis at risk. The only successful way to deter such behavior is to ensure that abductions will never be rewarded and that kidnappers can expect severe punishment for such transgressions.

Equally damning is the price that Israel has agreed to pay for the return of Shalit. It will now release scores of murderers and terrorists, many of whom are sworn to Israel's destruction. At least some of them will undoubtedly commit further terrorist attacks—in all likelihood causing the deaths of more Israelis. It is impossible for the Israeli government to morally justify the release of terrorists when death for some unfortunate Israelis is the inevitable outcome. Trading one captured prisoner for potential, even if undetermined, dead is unfathomable.

Finally, as harsh as it may seem, Israel will not be getting back the national hero that Shalit has been romanticized into over the past five years. As anyone who is familiar with Stockholm Syndrome knows, five years of isolation in a Hamas prison will not have worn well on the young Shalit, who was only 19 at the time of his capture. It is highly probable that Shalit has been completely brainwashed and indoctrinated by Hamas through years of psychological and physical control and torture. In all likelihood, over the course of his imprisonment, his handlers were able to break him. A worst case scenario is that he comes out of captivity as a mouthpiece for Hamas, slamming the very Israelis who sacrificed to gain his freedom. Obviously, such an outcome would be a huge propaganda win for Hamas and a demoralizing blow for Israel. Needless to say, it would only contribute to the mounting costs of this foolish prisoner swap. [1]

However misguided, the venerable roots of Israel's policy should not be denied. The intention is pure—to ensure that no solider is left behind, whether alive or dead. This is at least understandable, if not in some simplistic way commendable. It is undoubtedly comforting for the soldiers of such a small state to feel protected by their government. Nevertheless, while one's heart bleeds for the tragic Shalit, the government must consider the broader picture. There are better ways to maintain a commitment for the safe return of one's soldiers. Finding alternative means to punish Hamas, deter abductions, and obtain Shalit's release are the only method to fruitfully maintain Israeli security. Prisoner swaps will only lead to further tragedies and should never be a policy option.


[1] This is not meant to say that Israel should not do what it can to ensure Shalit's return—it should—but simply that the benefits the Israelis will get from a swap are not only most likely lower than they expect but certainly not worth the broader costs.

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