Obfuscation and oversimplification

The problem is not that Pipes is not Israeli - it's that he ignores the context of the prisoner deal.

Gilad Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In his last column ("May an American comment on Israel," July 28), Dr. Daniel Pipes reduced a discussion of the pressures and dilemmas that confront Israeli officials during hostage exchange negotiations into a debate over whether experts should be allowed to air opinions on matters with which they have no personal experience. This constitutes a glib subversion of an important conversation. The right to voice one's thoughts, irrespective of the degree of one's first-hand knowledge of the issues in question, is a linchpin of academic, and indeed democratic, discourse and is not in dispute. The problem with Pipes' last two offerings doesn't lie with the fact that he isn't an Israeli citizen. Rather, it is that he reduces a complex issue to a sound byte, completely ignores the context of the matter at hand and harshly attacks Israeli officials for their handling of this latest crisis. To briefly review: Throughout this nation's history, at least five administrations have exchanged imprisoned terrorists for Israeli hostages after it was determined that an operational window to rescue these hostages by force hadn't and wouldn't present itself. In fact, past administrations often paid prices to secure the release of hostages that were equivalent to the price that the current administration paid in the "Kuntar bargain." In each of these cases, including the most recent one, the realization that it would be impossible to affect a military resolution posed an agonizing dilemma for the leadership and public. On the one hand, Israel was eager to return captives to their homes and to demonstrate to the nation's soldiers and their parents that no reasonable effort would be spared to redeem the country's defenders. As such, the nation was strongly moved to enter negotiations with hostile organizations and ultimately pay whatever price, within reason. Israelis were fully aware, though, that by doing so, they risked not only appearing weak and thus degrading their capacity to deter their enemies, but giving terrorists an incentive to use this tactic in the future. IN EACH case, Israel decided between these two equally valid yet diametrically opposed arguments and their attendant dangers only after extensive public and governmental debate. Over time, the surety that the nation would stoop to bargain for hostages' lives even with its worst enemies became a key part of Israel's social contract. It could not, then, be cast aside by the current administration as lightly as Pipes might have liked. With the above said, it should also be noted that while past decisions to negotiate with terrorists were supported by the public, a vocal minority - including some respected figures - has, throughout, disputed this choice's wisdom. The opinions of this minority are widely seen as legitimate, and its right to participate in the dialogue is never called into question. The opposition though, even when it criticized the government's choice, never denigrated those who made the decision, because it respected the gravity of the circumstances. Given these points, Pipes might be advised to revisit the precedents that informed the latest swap and delve deeper into the full complexity of the gut-clenching choices that confront policy makers in these situations. A good first step in this regard would be to closely observe the upcoming negotiations with Hamas for the return of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. For more than two years, the government has rejected Hamas' exorbitant demands. This, coupled with the efforts it is investing to address the aforementioned opposing considerations, should assure Pipes that Israel hasn't degenerated into mental midgetry and that the nation's negotiators are doing the utmost to minimize the situation's bitter consequences. In this vein, it is worth noting that Hamas' demands for 450 convicts with blood on their hands were submitted long before Hizbullah won its alleged sweeping victory. Thus, Hamas's asking price cannot be linked to the Hizbullah deal. Hizbullah's skillfully orchestrated attempt to enlarge the appearance that it had triumphed in these last negotiations succeeded in tricking even those who are not its supporters into unwittingly accepting this premise, and thus into propagating the false idea that it had won a sweeping victory here. It is to be hoped that now that the media frenzy has subsided somewhat, we can prepare ourselves to face this upcoming, and considerably more complex challenge more soberly. Israel will certainly welcome the advice of experts with vast experience in such matters, such as Pipes and his like, in its attempts to minimize the expected costs of returning Schalit home safely and as soon as possible. The writer is the director of the Terrorism and Low Intensity Warfare Project at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.