The national debate about the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbullah negotiated by German intermediaries has been thoroughgoing and vigorous. One aspect, however, has been too little noted: the absence of a Torah perspective from the deliberations of the Israeli cabinet. At no point, does it appear to have occurred to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to consult with gedolei Yisrael as to the halachic propriety of the exchange that he pushed so hard.
Nor did the Chief Rabbis at any point attempt to introduce the Torah perspective into the ongoing national debate, despite the issue of pidyon shvu’im, the redemption of captives, being one of the most frequently mooted halachic topics over the course of Jewish history. The failure of the halachic perspective to be heard or sought on an issue of such great moment to the Jews of Israel, and on which the halacha has so much to say, represents a national tragedy.
Many of the arguments raised on both sides of the debate find their place in the halachic literature, and indeed a number of columnists did draw on halachic literature to support their arguments. The lack of interest of the government in the Torah perspective, however, bespeaks the estrangement of the modern state from the Torah.
I am no posek, and this column is certainly no forum for the resolution of some of the most tragic choices with which gedolei Torah have had to wrestle throughout the generations. Yet it does appear that the decision taken by a majority of one in the cabinet to proceed with the prisoner swap lacked the consideration of the long-range consequences of the exchange that is one of the hallmarks of the halachic literature in this area. It was precisely that concern with long-range consequences that led the Maharam M’Ruttenberg, the greatest halachic authority of his time, to refuse to allow the Jewish community to pay the immense ransom that the Emperor Rudolph demanded for his release from custody.
The Maharam M’Ruttenberg chose to remain in prison for seven years until his death rather than be ransomed because he feared that such a ransom would encourage any cash-strapped ruler to imprison the leading figures of the Jewish community and hold them for exorbitant ransom. Israel’s decision to return 400 Palestinian security prisoners to their homes and dozens of other Arabs ``with blood on their hands" to their native countries in return for one private businessman kidnapped while engaged in apparently shady business dealings abroad will provide precisely such an incentive to our enemies and turn every Jew in the world into an inviting target.
Indeed the IDF uncovered four roadside bombs planted by Hizbullah along the northern border last week indicating that Hizbullah is, even now, planning other operations like that in which it sought to capture the three soldiers whose bodies will be returned as part of the exchange in October 2000.
The encouragement of copycat kidnappings is the most direct threat created by the prisoner exchange, but by no means the only one. Hizbullah possesses thousands of missiles aimed at Israel, and is the most immediate external threat to Israel. In addition, the organization is taking a more active role in training and supplying Palestinian terrorists.
At a time when Hizbullah’s presence in Southern Lebanon is being increasingly viewed as a nuisance by the Lebanese themselves, the prisoner exchange will transform Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah into the leading regional hero and further enhance his prestige in the Palestinian refugee camps.
By extracting from Israel the release of 400 security prisoners -- 400 prisoners that Israel was unwilling to release, even at American urging, to bolster the prestige of Abu Mazzen – Nasrallah can creditably boast that he once again brought Israel to its knees, as he did when Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000. He will become the address for anyone who wants something from Israel.
The precipitous Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon has been repeatedly cited by the Palestinians over the past three years as proof of the vulnerability of Israel to terrorism. Another such Hizbullah success can only contribute to further Palestinian disdain for Israel’s determination.
Presumably the 400 Palestinian security prisoners to be released are being held for a reason and are deemed a terrorist threat. Since Rosh Hashanah, recently released security prisoners have carried out two suicide bombings and at least one more terrorist attack. The desire to provide the three soldiers killed by Hizbullah with a proper burial cannot justify the creation of new casualties in need of burial.
The most poignant claim for pidyon shvu’im is undoubtedly that of navigator Ron Arad, who was captured 17 years ago when his plane was shot down over Lebanon. Efforts by Israel to secure the return of its military personnel do not encourage future kidnappings in the same way that payment of a huge ransom to secure the release of a private businessman captured abroad does. For one thing, the number of potential targets is much smaller. Second, the return of prisoners is an accepted part of the rules of war.
Release of Mustafa Dirani, Arad’s captor, who has been held by Israel since 1994 would deprive Israel of its only real bargaining chip for the return of Arad, who is presumed to still be alive and in Iranian captivity, or information about his fate. Though, according to Ha’aretz, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz conditioned his approval of the exchange on the receipt of information about Arad, the chance of Mofaz actually being given a veto over the final exchange or of him utilizing such a veto if he were, are virtually nil.
Certainly Sheikh Nasrallah’s promise to seek more information from Iran after the exchange is worthless. Hizbullah is a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran, and if Iran has any intention of providing information or access to Arad, let it do so now before the exchange is consummated.
That no price is too high to pay from the point of view of Elchanan Tannenbaum’s family and those of the killed Israeli servicemen is perfectly understandable. But the government of Israel is faced with the same heart-wrenching dilemma that confronted the Maharam M’Ruttenberg: balancing the supreme importance of the mitzvah of pidyuim shvuim against endangering Jews in Israel and around the world. When it makes that decision, neither the need of the Prime Minister to generate some positive achievement nor the perspective of the families of those being held by Hizbullah can be determinative.