Analysis: A bad deal, but can some good come out of it?

Is our deep moral commitment not to leave soldiers behind dangerously outdated and out of place?

rosh hanikra idf 224 88 (photo credit: AP )
rosh hanikra idf 224 88
(photo credit: AP )
While on a recent trip abroad, a senior Israeli defense official was asked by a foreign diplomat why Israelis were making such a fuss about the Schalit, Goldwasser and Regev kidnappings. "I mean, aren't you the ones who invented kidnappings in the Middle East?" the diplomat asked the Israeli. True, Israeli commandos have, in the past, kidnapped Syrian and Egyptian generals from their beds, and Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists from their bases. Mossad agents even captured and smuggled Eichmann from Argentina and Vanunu from Italy. So what's all the fuss about? Why are we so emotionally vulnerable to kidnappings of our soldiers that the public pressure exerted on the government, via the media, corners the decision-makers and forces their hand in hostage negotiations? Why do we allow the kidnap weapon to be used to such effect against us by our enemies? Experts on Israeli society point out that the first generations of Israelis were, generally speaking and of necessity, not so connected to their emotions and inner processes. Having to dry swampland and build a nation while simultaneously fighting several wars naturally focused the mind outwards. Killing, dying, kidnapping and being kidnapped were routine affairs. Building the state, elevating its army and institutions was everything. Showing the outside world what Israelis were made of was paramount. There was no time and no need for deep sessions with psychologists, psychotherapists, life-coaches and self-awareness workshops. This changed after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which saw a popular outpouring of grief, and anger at the establishment. That emotional roller coaster fermented and erupted toward the end of the first Lebanon War. Israelis gradually grew less enamored with their leadership, while a new generation grew up with a different psychological makeup than their parents and grandparents. They opened up to their feelings. The senior Israeli defense official asked by the foreign diplomat why Israelis were so touchy on the latest prisoner deal is a member of the older generation, those born before the 60s and 70s. To him, the Schalit, Goldwasser and Regev kidnappings are a continuation of an old story: Israel's existential battle to survive in a hostile neighborhood, a region where the slightest sign of weakness can lead to catastrophe. "People today forget that our entire history, we faced war; they forget that they need to bite their lips and fight," he says, agreeing to speak only off the record. He believes the modern Israeli discourse is more akin to reality TV than to reality. There is too much emotion, too much hesitation, too many opinion polls and too little gravitas. A country like Israel cannot be run by people who feel they are contestants on a reality TV show - who have to compete for the adulation of the audience to stay on the show, he says, adding that a nation so easily rocked by kidnappings is in bad shape. This latest episode will end, the senior defense official says, but the season continues. Does the deal strengthen Hizbullah? Yes. In the eyes of the Arab world, Hizbullah pulled off a major victory: It survived a war against Israel, kept a million Israelis in bomb shelters for a month and got its POWs back, including an important symbol, Samir Kuntar. Israel sent the IDF into Lebanon to retrieve its two kidnapped soldiers and got them back two years after the army withdrew, and through negotiations, not force. In the eyes of the Hizbullah leadership and much of the Arab world, the deal is a victory. And they will make it look like one just in case anyone over there has any doubts. As far as Hizbullah is concerned, the Second Lebanon War account is closed. It is now looking to close the Imad Mughniyeh account. That it got Israel to agree to release Palestinian prisoners further raises its stock in the Arab world. Through this it strengthened Hamas and weakened the Palestinian Authority, further propagating the rise of extremists over moderates in the Middle East. Housing and Construction Minister Ze'ev Boim, voting against the deal, said, "Hamas is watching and taking this swap into account, and the price we will have to pay for Gilad Schalit will be higher. We come out weaker; we strengthen [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, whose image in the Middle East will be boosted. His way will be perceived as the right way." Boim was only one of three ministers who voted against the deal; the other 22 voted in favor. Was all the death and destruction wrought on Lebanon during the war worth a deal for four captured fighters, Samir Kuntar and dozens of dead bodies? Nasrallah is not complaining: Hizbullah has been strengthened since the war, it has veto power in the new Lebanese government, and much of the shattered South has been rebuilt or is in the process of reconstruction, with sizable funding from Iran. In the years since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 until the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hizbullah amassed some 14,000 rockets of various types and ranges. In the two years since the war, they have amassed some 40,000. Some of their rockets can even reach south of Hadera. UN Resolution 1701 is in tatters, and UNIFIL is not a hindrance to Hizbullah's operations. Does the deal strengthen or weaken Israel? Depends on who you ask. The senior defense official thinks it's a bad deal - it weakens our government system and strengthens "rule by reality TV format," where every decision is based on popularity ratings and media headlines. It shows that only public pressure, lobby groups and media campaigns can get kidnapped soldiers back, and not a steadfast, decisive government. Will kidnappings continue? Highly likely. Kidnapping and hostage negotiations have proven a successful tool for Hamas and Hizbullah, and there is no reason to believe they will stop now. Will the committee set up by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to draft new policy for prisoner exchanges withstand the first massive public and media pressure to "bring the boys home"? Highly unlikely. Will the next Karnit Goldwasser, God forbid there is one, follow in the footsteps of her highly successful predecessor, who banged on every door, got on every plane, interviewed on every TV station worldwide, just because a committee of retired generals and judges tell her she mustn't? Of course not. However, Dr. Ronen Hoffman, a lecturer on international relations at the IDC Herzliya and an expert on strategy and negotiations, says that although the latest deal may fall short on the security and diplomacy arenas, Israelis are strengthened by it because it underscores our moral and ethical strength. "Paradoxically, what is perceived as our weakness is in truth a real strength. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and that reminds us that we are a moral and ethical people," Hoffman says. Bargaining over prisoners is a much more emotional affair than talks over land, demilitarization, water and other national and strategic issues, because real people are involved. The other side, Hizbullah in this case, uses this effect to play with our morale. Hoffman points out that Israelis have become intimately involved with the personalities in this story; we have been following them since day one. Through the press, we have joined the new wife, Karnit Goldwasser, on her quest all over the world. We cried with her on her wedding anniversary, and we saw her first Passover meal without Udi. We have seen and read in-depth interviews with the parents. We rage with Miki Goldwasser. "Hostage negotiations turn national issues into personal ones. We all feel like we are negotiating for someone in our unit, in our family," Hoffman says. The psychological effects of the personalization of the hostage negotiations cannot be underestimated, Hoffman asserts, adding that Israeli society is getting psychologically stronger. Polls show that like the cabinet ministers, the majority of Israelis were in favor of the deal, even though Samir Kuntar is thought of in these parts as a despicable animal. The group of soldiers who make up the various "Friends of Schalit, Goldwasser and Regev" associations say it's a good deal. They say that increasingly, army reservists are questioning whether the state would do everything to get them back should they fall into captivity. It's a good deal, these people say, because it sends a signal to reservists that they will not be forgotten, and that encourages reservists to show up when they are called up. Will it encourage more kidnappings? "Maybe, so what?" they say. "Kidnap the enemy in turn, or make it harder for the enemy to kidnap our soldiers, like the IDF brass should have done in the beginning; but do whatever it takes to get our boys back." According to all the polls, Israelis believe they can only rely on themselves, and that they only have each other. The polls show Israelis believe the government cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of the people. If such is the makeup of our society, can we ever negotiate from a position of strength? Does the deal uphold our deep moral commitment not to leave soldiers behind enemy lines, or is that ideal dangerously outdated and out of place in this neighborhood, leaving us open to constant blackmail? The answer is, of course, both. For more of Amir Mizroch's articles, see his personal blog Forecast Highs.