The Israeli consensus is clear. The deal to free St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit is bewildering: absurd, lopsided, heartbreaking, terrifying, as well as inspirational, humane, necessary and ultimately rational. Much of the discussion has emphasized the Jewish and Zionist values shaping Israel’s commitment to every individual soldier.
But these are Western democratic values too. Hollywood teaches that in moral democratic armies, soldiers sometimes sacrifice their lives to save comrades. In Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, most of Tom Hanks’ unit dies bringing home a soldier who lost all his brothers in battle. The Great Raid tells the true story of soldiers in World War II’s final days, dying to free prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March, demonstrating that Americans never abandon imprisoned troops.
Here is one of the Schalit trade’s absurdities. Had soldiers died trying to free Gilad Schalit, the fallen soldiers’ families would have experienced more intense personal anguish, but Israeli citizens – and terror victims – would have endured less mass anguish. In 1975, Americans hailed the Mayaguez raid even though 18 Marines died saving 39 Merchant Marine hostages from Khmer Rouge Cambodian kidnappers.
In 1994, Nachshon Wachsman’s death, along with the death of two soldiers in the failed rescue attempt, was terribly upsetting but not communally unsettling.
This bloodless deal bringing Schalit home with no casualties is unnerving because it violates the norms of international engagement. The exchange’s utter disproportionality, 1 = 1,027, feeds fears of equally disproportionate future costs. During the Cold War, American-Soviet prisoner exchanges were more balanced – Natan Sharansky was freed in a four for five deal.
Underlying this unease is the unhappy realization, once again, that for Israel the rules are different.
Whereas once observers would have used this lopsided equation to say Arabs care about each prisoner only 0.00097371 percent as much as Israelis care about theirs, today it seems that critics only see Israel as 0.00097371% justified in using force.
Israel is supposed to be the geopolitical equivalent of a monk, defying nature, overriding its protective impulse. Israel is always on probation, with its legitimacy contingent on good behavior and passive resistance, no matter how evil the instigation.
The world, it seems, wants a defenseless Jewish state. A defenseless
Jewish state would not incarcerate those responsible for mass murderers
at a Sbarro pizzeria or a Passover Seder. A defenseless Jewish state
would not risk the lives of Egyptian soldiers, even if it meant not
firing at Palestinian terrorist attackers. A defenseless Jewish state
would not retaliate against the Hamas thugs ruling Gaza, even though
their dictatorial control makes them responsible for the terrorists
operating there. A defenseless Jewish state would not object to Mahmoud
Abbas bypassing the compromises negotiations entail, seeking yet another
biased, inflammatory UN declaration. A defenseless Jewish state would
not inconvenience the Arab world’s Western appeasers.
A defenseless Jewish state, of course, would be an overrun Jewish state,
but, these days, taking responsibility for the implications of your
political posturing is passé.
A country’s right of self-defense is as basic as an individual’s right
to be free. For nearly two millennia, Jews could not defend themselves.
Centuries of oppression followed, resulting in the Holocaust in Europe,
and, ultimately, mass expulsions from the Arab world. Yet in only
doubting one country, Israel, when it defends itself, world opinion is
reverting to the traditional status quo, trying to keep Jews
As the leader of a mature democratic state which makes tough decisions
and defends itself, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes his citizens
some straight talk. He and the Israeli leadership must stop lying and
claiming that “Israel does not negotiate with terrorists.” Israel
negotiates and caves in again and again. When states countenance
dishonesty they lose credibility, be it with unenforced speeding laws,
epidemic zoning violations, or repeatedly-crossed red lines.
Israel needs a new doctrine, one based on reality, not fantasy posturing.
Also, Netanyahu must explain the deal’s timing. The message he conveyed
to Palestinians, yet again, is that Israel rewards violence like
kidnapping but not peaceful, albeit obnoxious, diplomatic maneuvers.
Netanyahu’s actions suggest he sees both Abbas and Hamas as equally
extreme. If not, why boost the radicals having just stymied those
reputed to be moderates at the UN? Finally, Netanyahu should call on
President Barack Obama to explain, after Israel releases 1027 convicted
terrorists, why the United States can’t, for goodwill, release Jonathan
Pollard, who has served longer than any other spy ever convicted for
espionage benefiting an American ally.
Hamas propagandists delude themselves that Israel’s sentimental
attachment to Gilad Schalit, and every other citizen, indicates
weakness. Dictators always underestimate the morale democracies draw
from acting morally.
Terrorists can kidnap, rocket and murder but they cannot kill ideas.
They cannot kill the Zionist idea that the Jewish people deserve a state.
They cannot kill the Western idea that nation-states like Israel are
valid entities with the right to self-defense. And they cannot kill the
Jewish idea of individual dignity which values every one of us, treating
none as sacrificial pawns.
Israel draws strength from these powerful ideas, the ideas embodied
today in the young man with deepset eyes who endured five years of
suffering, now enjoying his freedom.
Israelis have no choice but to continue defending themselves. A
defenseless Jewish state is a dead Jewish state. This Jewish state,
learning from history, aware of its responsibilities, will do what it
takes to protect its citizens, be they sitting in cafes or held hostage
by murderers. At the same time, this Jewish state will remember that
seeking peace and living well are the best ways to repudiate the
murderous rejectionists who refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist and
mock its defining humane Jewish, Zionist, and Western values.The writer is Professor of History at
McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He
is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the
Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short