How to make the Schalit deal a Pyrrhic victory for Hamas

The deal’s greatest danger lies in reinforcing the Arab belief that Israel is a ‘spider-web’ society. Hence ensuring that Hamas loses by it in the long run is essential.

Schalit poll results pic (photo credit: staff)
Schalit poll results pic
(photo credit: staff)
The 1,027-for-1 ransom deal that returned Gilad Schalit to Israel last week has sparked much talk about how to ensure no such lopsided deal ever recurs. The Shamgar Committee, established in 2008 to formulate new rules for hostage deals but then iced until Schalit’s return, has already been recalled from retirement and is expected to submit its recommendations within two weeks.
Yet one glance at the polls reveals how futile any such recommendations will be. Channel 10’s poll, for instance, found that 62% of Israelis believed the deal would undermine Israel’s security, but 69% supported it anyway. In other words, a sweeping majority of Israelis backed the deal despite being fully cognizant of its risks. Under such circumstances, what government would ever be able to withstand the pressure to make a similar deal, regardless of what wise rules it adopts in principle?
This recognition has led several of my colleagues to suggest reinstating the death penalty for hardcore terrorists. That would at least keep the worst killers from ever going free to kill again, thus reducing the danger posed by future such deals. I fully concur. But the benefits of this move go way beyond the lives it would assuredly save.
According to Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen, 60% of freed terrorists return to terror. Terrorists released in previous deals have killed hundreds of Israelis, and those freed last week will undoubtedly kill many more. But as long as terror is contained below a certain level, it isn’t a strategic threat: Israel has suffered nonstop terror since its inception, and that hasn’t prevented it from growing and thriving.
The deal’s strategic danger lies in reinforcing the belief that Israel, as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah famously put it, is a “spider-web” society, so frail that sufficient force will eventually cause it to collapse. If a single kidnapped soldier can produce such national trauma and such near-total capitulation to Hamas’s demands – more prisoners than Israel had ever exchanged for a single soldier before; hundreds of murderers whom it had refused to release even to its ostensible peace partner (having rightly insisted that mass murderers aren’t “prisoners of war,” but criminals who should spend their lives behind bars); and even Israeli Arabs, whom Israel had previously declared off-limits – why shouldn’t enough such pressure produce total collapse?
And as long as the Arabs believe this, they have every incentive to keep applying violent pressure and no incentive whatsoever to make peace: Why settle for half the country if continued war will eventually give them all of it? That’s precisely why previous peace deals have only been achieved when Arabs despaired of destroying Israel. Jordan’s King Hussein, for instance, despaired after the 1967 Six-Day War, ushering in a quarter-century of de facto peace that was ultimately formalized in 1994. Anwar Sadat despaired after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed six years later. Even Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accord only because his fortunes were at low ebb: He was languishing in exile in Tunis, and the first intifada had been suppressed without producing any real gains.
Hence reversing the belief that Hamas just won a great victory is vital. And reinstating the death penalty would do exactly that, by turning Hamas’s victory into a Pyrrhic one.
Had Hamas’s demands been more moderate, this decision would say, the old practice of periodic ransom deals might have continued ad infinitum, allowing terrorists to commit attacks in full confidence of someday being freed. But by its greed, Hamas has ensured that no high-level terrorist will ever again return home. The conclusion would be inescapable: Excessive violence doesn’t pay – and the “spider-web” society, far from collapsing under pressure, will strike back if pushed too far.
Moreover, as I’ve explained in greater detail elsewhere, most potential terrorists aren’t diehard zealots indifferent to cost-benefit calculations; hence as the likelihood of being killed or spending long years in jail rises, the number of people willing to become terrorists drops. That’s precisely how Israel defeated the second intifada.
The Schalit deal greatly reduced the “cost” of terrorism by convincing potential terrorists that they will likely spend at most a few years in jail before being released in the next ransom deal. It thereby increased the incentive for new recruits to enter the terror business. The death penalty, however, would raise this cost again, by making it clear that killers will never again go free. That would make it harder to recruit new terrorists over the long run, further undermining Hamas’s “victory.”
Finally, the death penalty would weaken one of the region’s top terrorist training programs. As defense officials noted before last week’s swap, Israeli prisons are notorious “schools for terror,” where low-level terrorists serving short sentences learn new skills that make them far more dangerous after their release. The Prison Service’s inability to prevent this is outrageous. But the death penalty would prevent it: If highly skilled terrorists were executed instead of jailed, our “schools for terror” would lose their best “teachers,” and would thus produce less proficient graduates.
Contrary to popular belief, the death penalty for terrorists actually exists on the books; the problem is that courts never apply it. To solve this problem, legislation must be passed making capital punishment mandatory for certain types of attacks, just as a life sentence is mandatory for murder. In addition, a massive public relations campaign is necessary to convince the public – and, ultimately, the judges – that Israel’s traditional revulsion at the death penalty is misplaced in this case.
Having just paid the most generous ransom in Israel’s history, in defiance of all his stated principles, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is uniquely qualified to explain to the Knesset, and the nation, why the death penalty is essential to prevent such a deal from ever recurring. In so doing, he would take a vital step toward restoring Israel’s lost deterrence.
Otherwise, he will be nothing more than Exhibit A in Nasrallah’s lectures on how to defeat the spider-web society.

The writer is a journalist and commentator.