The strength of weakness

Is accepting the Schalit bargain a sign of intolerable weakness or actually strength?

Schalit rally 224.88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff  [file])
Schalit rally 224.88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff [file])
The possibility that what has come to be known as "the Schalit deal" will soon be actualized has the Israeli public in an uproar. Despite the fact that the specifics of the deal are not yet known, it is seems clear that it will involve exchanging an Israeli combat-arms serviceman for hundreds of malicious murders implicated in terrorist attacks on Israel. Taking advantage, in other words, of the fact that Israel doesn't have a realistic chance of affecting Schalit's release through military action, Hamas is blackmailing Israel. The decision, then, is between two evils: the first option is to refuse to pay the heavy price Hamas is asking for Schalit and thereby possibly sealing his fate; and the second, to release the killers, with everything that implies. The deal's opponents claim that it will adversely affect Israel's deterrent capacity; encourage further kidnappings; fortify Hamas' position in its struggle with Fatah, and, as the ex-prisoners will return to terrorist activity, swell Hamas' ranks. Some also state that the release will make a mockery of the efforts of the Israeli security forces, members of which have risked their lives to remove the threat from the local arena, and add that any such deal would constitute a mortal blow to the Israeli legal and justice systems. THE DEAL'S ADVOCATES, however, claim that the state has a national and moral obligation to support troops it dispatched to the battlefield, and that to do otherwise would be to break the Jewish ethos of "all Israelis are each other's keepers." Waiting for a more advantageous moment to negotiate the hostage's release, they claim, is tantamount to abandoning Schalit - and this, in turn, would undermine the willingness of the nation's youth to join combat units and certainly the willingness of reservists to mobilize. Some also claim that releasing prisoners doesn't pose a severe threat to Israel's national security, because none of the candidates for release possess skills so significant that, were they free to operate, they'd alter the basic asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. Further, if released terrorists return to the field, the IDF will be able to target them and, if necessary, kill them. Additional arguments for the bargain include the point that many of those released will not return to the West Bank, but will rather be banished to other locations, thus minimizing the risk they'll pose; and that the release is part of a wider bargain that will end the shelling of the southern settlements, thus removing much of the blackmail's sting. The fact that Israel is willing to abnegate the principle whereby some prisoners will never be released could, according to this viewpoint, lessen the organizations' motivation to kidnap Israelis. This being contingent, of course, on a fundamental change of policy, whereby all of the Palestinian prisoners could eventually be released, even if only as part of an overarching agreement with the Palestinians. TO BE SURE, this isn't an easy decision to make, but it is important to emphasize that an exchange bargain doesn't pose a strategic, existential threat to Israel. The binding ethos of the Israel society - whereby the group stands guarantee to the individual - is the foundation of the nation's social and moral strength and, in the final analysis, is what allows the nation to exist at all. It is why the nation's youth are willing to serve in the IDF, often putting themselves in mortal danger. Many prisoners have told that, while in captivity, the knowledge that the nation was doing all it could to obtain their release is what gave them the strength to make it through hell and to maintain their optimism and vitality. While debating the heart-rending dilemma of whether to redeem hostages by releasing vicious killers, the question arises: Is accepting the Schalit bargain a sign of intolerable weakness, or is the Israeli weakness in this matter actually strength? The answer should be that this apparent weakness is always to be preferred, because it is the font of a moral strength that more than compensates for any narrow tactical weakness. The writer is the director of the Terrorism Project at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).