Civil Fights: How to lose a war in one easy move

Acceding to Hamas's terms for return of Gilad Schalit will undo any gains from the recent Gaza op.

Gilad Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If anyone thought the recent Gaza operation showed that our leaders' strategic judgment has improved, recent leaks to the press about their willingness to pay an even more extravagant price for Gilad Schalit following this operation should dispel that illusion. Hamas wants Israel to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, in installments, in exchange for Schalit, including 350 particularly vicious killers - people directly responsible for murdering hundreds of Israelis - whom it specifically requested by name. Before the Gaza operation, the government had reportedly agreed to the overall number and up to 220 of the specific murderers on Hamas's list, but was balking at the rest. Now, it has reportedly offered to accede to even more of Hamas' demands. Why? Because, our ministers claim, the severe blow dealt Hamas in the recent fighting significantly lessens the dangers inherent in such a deal. Nothing could better demonstrate this government's complete inability to think more than one day ahead. Because in fact, the opposite is true: Acceding to Hamas's terms would instantly erase every one of the Gaza operation's putative achievements. First, on a purely tactical level, it would instantly restore Hamas's fighting ranks to full strength. Nobody knows exactly how many Hamas operatives were killed in Gaza, but even the highest estimates do not exceed several hundred. Hence the mooted prisoner release would completely replace them. Worse, it would replace them with far more skilled and experienced terrorists. Though the IDF killed a few high-level operatives in Gaza, most of the casualties were rank and file. In contrast, the prisoners Hamas is demanding by name are high-level planners, organizers, bomb-makers and operations experts. Hence in terms of operative capabilities, Hamas would actually emerge stronger than it was before the Gaza operation. Moreover, statistics compiled by defense agencies indicate that roughly 50 percent of all terrorists released in previous prisoner exchanges resumed terrorist activity. Indeed, freed terrorists have been responsible for hundreds of deaths in recent years. There is no reason to believe the Schalit deal would be any different. Thus this deal would effectively sign death warrants for dozens. OVER THE long run, however, worst of all is what it would do for Hamas's prestige. The Gaza operation's impact on Palestinian attitudes toward Hamas remains unclear. Initial reports indicate that while there may have been some disenchantment in Gaza, the organization actually gained support in the West Bank, where its wildly inflated claims of its own heroism and Israel's casualties, reported as fact by Al Jazeera, have apparently been widely believed. But that could change once the truth emerges. The proposed Schalit deal, in contrast, would give Hamas an undeniably genuine achievement that no other terrorist group has ever come close to matching. Even the infamous Jibril exchange, one of the most lopsided deals in the country's history, traded 1,150 terrorists for three soldiers, or a ratio of 383:1. The Tannenbaum swap exchanged 435 terrorists for one drug dealer and three dead bodies. The Schalit deal's proposed ratio is over 1,000:1 - almost three times the highest ratio ever previously accepted. No rational person looking at that figure could fail to conclude that Hamas brought the IDF to its knees. And certainly, no Palestinian will. Worse, the rival Fatah faction, our self-proclaimed partner for peace, has been demanding the return of all these prisoners for years without success. The conclusion would be obvious: Hamas has achieved not only what no other terrorist organization ever has, but also what no negotiation ever has. As for the government's claim that it can solve this problem by defining most of the freed prisoners as a "gesture to Mahmoud Abbas," that would not fool a two year old - which is precisely why Hamas has reportedly consented to it. Every Palestinian will know who really secured these prisoners' freedom. Finally, these prisoners all have families and friends longing for their return. And in Palestinian eyes, their joy at reunion will do much to obscure any pain and anger at Hamas by those who lost loved ones during the Gaza operation. For all these reasons, a deal on Hamas's terms will turn it into the Palestinians' unchallenged leader - the group that brought Israel to its knees and secured concessions no rival ever matched, either by negotiations or by force. And that would completely undo any success the Gaza operation may have had in weakening Hamas. THERE ARE various creative proposals for pressuring Hamas over Schalit that the country has yet to try, and should. Here is one (which might require legislation): Select a large number of prisoners who would in any case be released in a few years, once they finish serving their terms. Announce that if Schalit is returned, they will be freed immediately - but otherwise, they will never go home again. Inform their families, publish their names in the Palestinian press, drop leaflets explaining the new policy. Warn that as time passes, more prisoners will join the list of those who will not go home until Schalit is freed. And then let their families and friends pressure Hamas. They can probably do it much better than we can. And there is certainly no injustice in it: Anyone who joins a terrorist organization knowingly risks imprisonment or even death; this is the price of his own choices. But even if we had exhausted every other possibility, there is no justification for agreeing to Hamas's terms. Hard as it is, making cost-benefit decisions is precisely what governments exist to do. For instance: Does rocket fire on the South justify a military operation that will certainly cost Israeli lives? Or are the strategic costs of a military response too high? One can argue about the wisdom of either option, but governments can and must make choices like this every day. And that is precisely the kind of choice the government must make in Schalit's case. A government is responsible for the welfare of the entire country, not that of any specific individual. And no one individual justifies the immense long-term strategic damage we would suffer by acceding to Hamas's demands.