Analysis: Only Israelis can fathom

No other country would have made such a deal, critics say. They're right.

regev goldwasser coffins (photo credit: IDF)
regev goldwasser coffins
(photo credit: IDF)
Much of what makes Israel unique and different needs to be understood to explain the grisly prisoner exchange that took place on Wednesday. Israel freed a child-murderer and four prisoners of war, along with nearly 200 bodies of assorted terrorists and infiltrators, for coffins bearing the remains of two IDF reservists. That asymmetrical "trade" and the possibility that it will encourage further kidnappings, or raise the price that Hamas is asking for Gilad Schalit, or remove any incentive for the enemy to keep Israeli captives alive, is not easy to explain abroad. The Foreign Ministry and the IDF are trying to do so by saying this swap highlights the difference in morality and values between Israel and Hizbullah; that Lebanon and Hizbullah are elevating a man who crushed the skull of a four-year-old girl to rock-star status; and that the Lebanese will have to ask themselves whether the destruction Hizbullah brought upon the country to free Samir Kuntar was worth it. Those are all appropriate explanations that make good sound bites. But why Israel went through with the deal cannot be explained in a 30-second segment, because the reason has to do with the next war, and with what is going through the hearts and minds of parents and officers who send their charges to war, and with lessons from the Holocaust - yes, the Holocaust - that have penetrated deep, deep into Israel's collective subconscious. No other country in the world would have made such a deal, critics of the exchange have said. And they are right. But no other country in the world bears the scars that Israel does, nor the almost absolute knowledge that there will be other wars to fight in this generation, other sacrifices to be made, and that people we all know will be called upon to make them. Unlike what was repeated endlessly Wednesday, the swap does not really "close the circle." Granted, it brings closure to the Goldwasser and Regev families, who will now be able - at least to some extent - to move on. It brings closure to the country's chapter called the Second Lebanon War, a war launched to bring the captives back home. But it in no way brings closure to Israel's battle with Hizbullah. It is not as if now that this chapter is over, Israel and Hizbullah will open up a new and happier one in their relations. Hizbullah will not cease its hostile acts against Israel now that their hero Kuntar is back on Lebanese soil, nor will they stop if the Shaba Farms/Mount Dov issue is settled. For even were all those issues put to rest, there would always be the issue of the seven villages in the Galilee that Lebanon claims. And were that problem eventually solved, another one would crop up as Hizbullah continued to push the goalposts back. No, there is no closure with Hizbullah, just preparation for the next confrontation. And it is in those preparations that the swap comes into play. It has become almost a cliché to say that each soldier must know that when he goes into battle, the country will do everything, but everything, in its power to bring him back home if something untoward occurs. But forget the soldiers - they are not thinking in these terms. Most of the 18-, 19- and 20-year-old soldiers still live with their youthful sense of invincibility, that this wouldn't or couldn't happen to them. They are busy training and fighting and will not be any more or less motivated to do so by this deal. To say that "every soldier needs to know..." is good on paper. But out in the field, in the tents, among the average foot soldier, it is not that big a factor. Where it is a big factor is among the officers. For the officers need the trust of their soldiers. They need to know that when they head into battle, their soldiers will follow. And for that they need their soldiers' trust, trust only gained if what they say is believable. For generations the officers have said that the IDF leaves no soldier behind, dead or alive. And until that credo is changed, the officers need to know that these are not just empty words. This is what they tell their soldiers, and it is essential for future confrontations that their soldiers believe them. Which explains why Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi was such a fierce advocate of the deal, even though he - more than anyone else - knows the risk this may pose for future soldiers. Ashkenazi needs the trust of those he commands, and that trust can only be won if words and intent are one, and the IDF's words for generations have been that no one is left behind. There are those who argue that the fact that the country did not know for certain that Goldwasser and Regev were dead until the black coffins were carried out of Hizbullah's cars on Wednesday points to a huge Israeli intelligence failure. But that overstates the case. The assessments in the security establishment and in the Prime Minister's Office for months had been that the two were dead - indeed, that was the assessment of the army's Medical Corps already on the second day of the war. But few wanted to say this out loud, and the media kept stoking the flames of hope. When the cabinet voted a little over two weeks ago to approve the guidelines of the deal, the ministers knew that Israel would be trading for two bodies. Yet they voted for it. And it is precisely here that the traumas of the collective memory of the Holocaust come into play. Israel's ethos of never leaving a soldier behind is not only to ensure that the country's soldiers will not be faint of heart going into the next battle, but also, to a great degree, out of a sense of communal obligation following the Holocaust - a feeling that whenever Jews are in danger, everything, but everything, must be done to try to save them, if only because so little was done back then. Does this mean that Israel pushed forward the deal for Goldwasser and Regev because of a sense of guilt over the Holocaust? Obviously not. But the trauma of the Holocaust is etched into the country's collective subconscious, and does impact decisions. Israel is a land of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, and their experiences - and the experiences they have passed down to children and grandchildren - do shape how the public looks at the world. And among these survivors are tens of thousands of people whose family members were murdered, but who know not where they are buried. Many have said over the last few days that a "normal country" would not have made such an asymmetrical trade for two coffins. Perhaps. But normal countries don't have thousands of people walking around not knowing where relatives are buried, and therefore valuing a simple grave. Is this the reason Israel went ahead with the deal? Again, obviously not. But it is part of the Israeli psyche, part of the reason Israel would do something that seems unfathomable to many who don't live here among us.