Critical Currents: Make the trade

The country needs Gilad Schalit back home now, along with Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Disappointment with the government's response to the list of prisoners to be released in return for Gilad Schalit is even greater than that expressed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert upon its receipt. Not for the first time, a vociferous and irresponsible public debate is now taking place on how much one soldier's life is worth. Each one of the claims presented by the opponents of the proposed exchange does not stand up to close scrutiny. Instead of engaging in demeaning rhetoric which debases fundamental human values, it is high time to coalesce around - and act upon - the obligation of the state to do everything in its power to bring Schalit and all those who serve it home safely. The first argument against acceding to Hamas's demands is quantitative. The request for the release of 1,400 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel has raised many eyebrows. Nobody, however, has been willing to indicate what would be considered a reasonable number, because no answer to such a question exists. Since it is impossible to assess how many Palestinians are commensurate to one Israeli (is it 1,200, 700, 10 or one?), this line of reasoning should be exposed for what it is - a scandalous exercise in populism - and abandoned forthwith. The second line of debate, which focuses on who should be released, is equally problematic. If government negotiators had their way, only the downtrodden (the old, the infirm, the young and, of course, women) would be freed. But since the opportunity for such a move has long passed, the discussion has inevitably shifted to whether to liberate those convicted for attacks on Israelis. Anyone attuned to the voices raised on the various sides of this issue cannot but cringe when attempts are made to measure the amount of blood on the hands of the perpetrators. It is painfully evident that many either planned or engaged in violent acts. But as soon as the lives they destroyed are compared with that of Schalit - an equation which is sadly part of the present discourse - no rational decisions can be made. There is no response to the question of whose blood is more valuable; it should never be asked. MANY DETRACTORS of the prisoner exchange have, in an effort to avoid the horrific implications inherent in such ruminations, adopted a third, security-rooted tactic. While paying lip service to the need to secure the captured soldier's return, they constantly stress the unacceptable potential cost of the release of hundreds of known terrorists. This palpably demagogic claim presumes that all Palestinians now incarcerated in Israel are by definition recidivists. Past experience hardly supports this proposition. In the same vein, it asserts that the potential danger of the release of these prisoners is greater than if they would remain in jail. Since the prisoner issue has fomented continuous disquiet in Palestinian quarters, it is impossible to estimate the ongoing cost of the retention of these convicts versus the damage which may be caused by their release. No such calculation can - or should - be seriously entertained. Particularly unpalatable, however, is the tacit attempt to pit the young life of Schalit against the possible lives of other Israelis in the future. This is not a matter of public versus private considerations, as some have unabashedly intimated. Gilad Schalit is a decidedly public affair. It is intellectually reprehensible and ethically untenable to even hint otherwise. A spin-off of this kind of thinking focuses more squarely on the political repercussions of a prisoner exchange. This fourth rationale highlights the futility of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority while simultaneously contributing to its derailing. Israel has repeatedly declared that it views the return of Schalit as a sine qua non for the resumption of full-scale talks. The Palestinians, too, see a prisoner release as a necessary prelude to such discussions. For this reason, immense energy has been invested by both sides - with the active involvement of third parties - in its successful completion. If the planned exchange does not take place, further political steps will be stymied and the spoilers will once again win. The cynicism ingrained in such an approach is unspeakable. The last argument against the Schalit deal, the strategic one, is also the most nefarious. Its proponents decry any act which could be considered "surrender to political blackmail." In their mind, agreement to free Palestinian prisoners for Israeli soldiers is tantamount to inviting additional kidnappings. Under the guise of condemning the use of prisoners as a political commodity, they essentially reject any exchange as a matter of principle. Acquiescence to such reasoning is not only counterproductive (it removes the rationale for the Second Lebanon War in one fell swoop), it is also morally numbing. It transmits to every Israeli a single, crippling message: It is better to die than be captured. Israel has always prided itself on its unwavering commitment to the preservation of the lives of its citizens; it has justly paid dearly for their repatriation. Any, even minor, deviation from this ironclad principle undermines one of the most sacred mainstays of the Israeli ethos. The country needs Gilad Schalit back home now, along with Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. The price for their return, however steep, is minimal when weighed against the normative cost of their abandonment. Israel today cannot live with the stain of such inaction. Those who contest this deal would do well to direct their energies to ending the conflict which nurtures situations which make prisoner exchanges necessary.