On Sunday the Israeli cabinet voted 22-3 in favor of a “prisoner” swap with Hezbollah. Israel, on its side of the bargain, won’t be receiving any prisoners but instead the corpses of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2006, along with partial, inadequate information on Ron Arad, the airman shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Hezbollah, for its part, gets five live terrorists including child-killer Samir Kuntar, dozens of corpses of terrorists, information on four Iranian diplomats who were detained by Christian Phalange forces in Lebanon in 1982, and live Palestinian terrorists whose number and identity are supposed to be determined by Israel.
The lopsided vote in favor was especially notable given the opposition of Israel’s defense establishment, which stressed the obvious facts that: such deals strengthen terror organizations; such deals both encourage further kidnappings and encourage these organizations to up their demands for hostages already held; and trading live terrorists for dead Israelis further endangers other kidnapped Israelis by telling terrorists they can extort high prices even for their corpses.
The cabinet was also told by Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin—staunch opponents of the deal—that Kuntar’s inclusion means losing any further chance for genuine progress on the case of Ron Arad, since Kuntar was Israel’s last remaining bargaining chip for Arad.
The cabinet also heard, however, from Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi—staunchly in favor of the deal—who stated that “I am the commander of all the soldiers...of the living and the dead, and therefore I say to you the deal must be approved.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for his part, told the cabinet that “We have the utmost collective responsibility and must look the [involved] families in the eye—as well as our conscience.” He referred to the “fundamental issue of a country’s obligation toward its soldiers it sends into battle” and said: “A nation that concedes in order to ensure life, save its wounded, bring home its dead—is a nation that creates unbreakable bonds of mutual obligation.”
Logically speaking, then, the “nays” had it. A nation indeed has an obligation toward the soldiers it sends into battle, but that obligation doesn’t include ransoming them with large numbers of lethal terrorists. If soldiers are taken captive by terrorists, a country’s intelligence services have to comb the world relentlessly to find them or find out about them. The country has to threaten, pressure, and punish the terrorists into freeing the captives. It can also agree to proportionate exchanges to free them.
It doesn’t, however, have to further strengthen its deadly enemies by giving in to their extortionate demands. As for making real, tangible sacrifices, like freeing live, dangerous terrorists, to secure soldiers’ remains, it’s a duty that only Israel seems to have discovered.
Ashkenazi and Olmert, though, appealed to emotions of group solidarity and sympathy for the soldiers’ families that clearly prevailed among the cabinet ministers. Olmert came closest to basing his appeal on logic with his claim that “A nation that concedes in order to ensure life, save its wounded, bring home its dead—is a nation that creates unbreakable bonds of mutual obligation.” But the unbreakable bonds of mutual obligation already exist in Israeli society—and they encompass, as well, victims of future terror attacks and kidnappings resulting from ill-advised deals.
The naysayers’ warnings were already borne out on Monday when Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said that, in return for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit whom Hamas has been holding for two years, Israel would have to free prisoners with “blood on their hands” like Samir Kuntar. Or as an Israeli defense official put it, "They want to take advantage of the deal with Hezbollah. They see what price we are willing to pay for bodies and think they can now get more for Shalit, who is alive."
Hezbollah, for its part, reacted by celebrating the cabinet’s decision and its Al-Manar Television called it “proof that the word of the resistance is the most faithful, strongest and supreme.” Posters of Kuntar—who in a 1979 terror attack in Israel murdered four-year-old Einat Haran by bashing her head on rocks and with his rifle butt, after murdering her father Danny Haran—were hung throughout Kuntar’s home city of Sidon and in other parts of Lebanon.
The Palestinian Authority also expressed satisfaction. The PA had already been praising Kuntar and last week its official TV showed a picture of him next to a map of Israel covered by a Palestinian flag.
Olmert and the other cabinet ministers’ concern for the families of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, which enabled all this, was a real but selective concern. It didn’t seem to encompass Danny Haran’s brother Roni Keren, who sharply objected on Sunday to the freeing of Kuntar; or the Almagor organization of terror victims and their relatives, which opposed the deal.
The one ray of hope in this bleak scenario is that Olmert also told the cabinet that “over the years we also learned that this obligation [to our soldiers] has limits. A country must have limits even when dealing with the price of freedom for soldiers, and the price for their very lives.”
He went on to say that once the Hezbollah exchange and an exchange for Shalit were done with, Israel would establish “organized, agreed-upon, and firm procedures to deal with this issue in the future, and we will do so soon.”
They can’t do it soon enough. Hopefully it will be part of a recovery from a period in which Israel has lost its nerve before the pure viciousness of its enemies.