Prisoners dilemma

It is simply not true that there are no limits to what Israel will do to return a prisoner.

Gilad Shalit 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Shalit 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Cpl. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped on June 25 last year. We hope and, in synagogues all over the country, we pray for his release, along with reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured by Hizbullah on July 12. We can only imagine what these soldiers and their families are going through. We have already gone, and are committed to go, to extreme lengths as a nation to bring them home. While Hamas and Hizbullah well understood how highly we value our soldiers' freedom, and therefore worked hard to capture them, even these groups seem not to have expected Israel to go to war to win their release. And yet we did. This ethic, which may seem lopsided to some, is understood both in the IDF and among Israelis generally. The commitment never to leave soldiers in the field binds our people's army, and the people to the army. It is a commitment we should proud of, and never forget to uphold. Yet it is simply not true that there are no limits to what Israel will do to return a prisoner. Though often couched in absolute terms, the national commitment to return prisoners must, in any moral calculus, be balanced against a no less lofty value: the rights of future victims of terrorism and kidnappings. No one has made this point more powerfully than our own leaders. On July 2, one week after Shalit's capture, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet, "Everyone knows that capitulating to terrorism today means inviting the next act of terrorism. We will not do this." Backing Olmert in this position were Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin. Yadlin warned that every kidnapping bred three to four other attempts. Former OC Operations Directorate Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eizencot, now OC Northern Command, said the IDF goal was to free Shalit in a manner that would prevent future kidnappings. Releasing Palestinian prisoners, all the security officials agreed, would obviously run contrary to that goal. After the meeting, a poll conducted by this newspaper found that all nine members of the security cabinet agreed with this position. Three days later, hours before a Palestinian ultimatum expired, Olmert said, "Israel will not give in to extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organizations.... We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners. The PA bears full responsibility for the welfare of Gilad Shalit and for returning him safe and sound to Israel." On July 9, Olmert told the cabinet he had considered a prisoner release as a confidence-building gesture before meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. This initiative was scrapped when Shalit was kidnapped. That prisoner release would have helped the moderates, while "releasing Palestinian prisoners to Hamas would be the end of the moderates," Olmert said, banging his hand on the cabinet table. "It would send a signal to all the international players that Israel only knows how to talk after a kidnapping, and only with the extremists." A captured soldier and his family are real people. We must not forget them. But though future victims of a lopsided prisoner deal are unknown, that does not make them less real or less worthy of our consideration. A study released in September by the Almagor Terror Victims Association found that members of terrorist organizations released by Israel after being defined as not having "blood on their hands" had later perpetrated 14 terror attacks that killed 132 Israeli civilians. Almagor organized a vigil opposite the Prime Minister's Office. The protesters against a potential prisoner release included Debra Appelbaum, whose husband Dr. David Appelbaum and their 20-year-old daughter Nava were killed in one of the attacks by a released prisoner, at Jerusalem's Cafe Hillel. Recently, officials in Olmert's office have promised a "very, very large" prisoner release, despite the fact that security officials argue that these prisoners "always return to terrorism" and warn that, judging from the current increase in terrorist activity, a new "intifada" is about to break out. The "no capitulation to ransom" Olmert of July and the "large prisoner release" Olmert of today cannot both be right. While there is no easy choice between victims, current and future, and while this most acute of dilemmas is anything but black and white, Olmert's original stance is the more morally persuasive.