The Hidden Tragedy of the Hostage Exchange
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 2, 2008
Of all the many bizarre elements of hostage exchange approved this week by the Israeli cabinet by a vote of 22-3, the most bizarre was that Israel negotiated as if did not matter whether Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are dead or alive. Hizbullah never provided any information concerning the condition of its two captives and did not permit any international body access to them. Thus Israel allowed itself to be placed in the position of negotiating without even knowing what it was negotiating about.
The negative implications of this approach for the future are obvious. By entering into negotiations in such circumstances, Israel lowered the standard for treatment of its POWs. Israel should instead have attempted to raise an international outcry against Hizbullah's violation of all accepted international standards for the treatment of prisoners. In the likely event that Hizbullah showed itself immune to international pressure – something at which its excels – then Israel's next move should have been to show that two can play this game with prisoners, and cut off all communications between Palestinian prisoners and their families.
When the Confederacy started to kill captured blacks fighting for the Union Army, President Abraham Lincoln threatened to reciprocate against Confederate prisoners. And that was the end of the matter.
The principal justification offered for the release of Samir Kuntar, an unrepentant murderer of four Israeli citizens, who has vowed to return to the battle against Israel as soon as he is released, is that IDF morale depends on soldiers knowing that everything will be done to bring them back if captured.
But it is far from clear how relevant that consideration is with respect to the return of dead bodies. At least one petition of reservists called upon the government not to offer anything in return for the bodies of any of the signatories. Moreover, it is hard to believe IDF morale will be improved by a negotiating strategy that will have the inevitable effect of removing all incentives for the proper treatment of Israeli POWs.
Worse, by treating the bodies of Israeli soldiers as valuable bargaining chips, the Israeli government has removed one of the primary incentives for captors of IDF soldiers to keep them alive. Not exactly a major morale booster.
Nor do the negative consequences of the hostage exchange end there. Israel has enhanced Hizbullah's status in Lebanon. Nasrallah can now crow that he succeeded in doing what no one thought possible – forcing Israel to return a vicious murderer, who shot a father in the head in front of his young daughter, bashed the girl to death with the butt of his rifle, and caused the terrified wife and mother to inadvertently suffocate her infant as she hid.
The precedent of releasing murderers whose hands are dripping blood further lowers the deterrence factor against terrorists. Once terrorists knew that if captured they would spend the rest of their life rotting in an Israeli jail. No longer.
In addition, the Israeli government let itself be dragged into the exchange by a hysterical press filled with the tearful pleas of the Goldwasser and Regev families. No one can blame the families for holding on to the slim hope that their loved ones are alive or doing everything in their power to secure their release. But the government of Israel should have shown itself capable of balancing their wrenching plight against the national interest. That is the role of leaders: to weigh short-term gain against long-range consequences.
In a letter read at the cabinet meeting that voted on the exchange, Smadar Haran, the wife and mother of Kuntar's victims wrote, that Kuntar is not her "personal" prisoner, and that her feelings should not determine the outcome of the vote. She has had 29 years to reach that position, and no one should judge the Goldwasser and Regev families harshly in comparison. But at least the cabinet and the media should have realized that the decision was not that of the two families to make any more than the release of Kuntar was Smadar Haran's.
The negotiations with Hizbullah were conducted on a parallel track to those with Hamas over the return of captured soldier Gilad Schalit, who is known to be alive. The results of the former can only result in the price for the latter escalating sharply. Repeated statements by figures such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak that "everything" must be done to return captured soldiers – dead or alive – translates into "no price is too high." Already Hamas has demanded the release of the masterminds of the Pesach massacre in Netanya and those who have planned all the recent terrorist attacks. And why shouldn't they?
If the top Palestinian terrorist operatives are willingly put back into circulation by Israel, is there any doubt that the result will be many more Israeli victims. It was left to former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon to make that obvious point, "In some situations, the price to pay as part of the deal is much heavier than the price of losing the captive soldier." And he was promply pilloried in the Israeli press for his hardheartedness.
The 2005 exchange in which Israel released hundreds of terrorists for the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah and an Israeli drug dealer lured to Lebanon by Hizbullah has now begotten Hamas' demand for the release of a thousand prisoners for Gilad Schalit.
Prime Minister Olmert indicated after the cabinet vote that he knows the price being paid is too high, and blustered that as soon as all the current captives are returned, Israel will establish new game rules for dealing with prisoner swaps. But the time to refrain from insane actions is now – not before the next act of insanity. Nor does the recent history of Israeli hostage exchanges offer any hope of the situation improving.
ALL THE POINTS MADE THUS FAR have been made by others as well – e.g., Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, former defense minister Moshe Arens, and Caroline Glick. But there is one aspect of the prisoner exchange that should be of particular pain to Torah Jews.
Very few issues have been so extensively treated in both the Talmud and the responsa literature as the ransom that can be offered for captives. The reasoning of the hundreds of responsa on the subject is applicable to our current situation as well.
It is sad that no government official appears to have contacted the greatest contemporary halachic authorities for guidance. And the media contented itself with endlessly recycling the case of the Maharam M'Rottenburg.
But that is already an old story. What should pain us no less is that there was no outpouring of writing by Torah scholars discussing the contemporary issues in light of the halachic literature. Nor did the chareidi Knesset members make a point of addressing what the Torah has to say about the most pressing of contemporary issues.
Even the Shas cabinet members, who presumably voted for the exchange after consulting Rav Ovadia Yosef, the party's leader and halachic authority, did not explain their vote in halachic terms, apart from some vague rumors that Rabbi Yosef was primarily concerned that the wife of Ehud Goldwasser not be left an agunah.
There was, in short, no evident impulse to turn to the Torah for guidance on current issues or to demonstrate to the broader Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael that the Torah is a Toras Chaim, which provides answers to the most challenging real life issues. The absence of such an impusle is a sad measure of our sense of distance from our fellow Jews – and perhaps from the Torah itself.
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