Why the prisoner swap will harm Israel
Although the Shalit deal reflects traditional Israeli values, it may not be Netanyahu's best move. (Getty Images)
October 18th, 2011
10:58 AM ET

Why the prisoner swap will harm Israel

Editor's Note: Alon Pinkas is an Israeli diplomat, who most recently served as Consul General of Israel in the United States.

By Alon Pinkas, Foreign Affairs

The prisoner exchange deal that Israel struck with Hamas last week does not make sense in terms of the country's foreign and defense policy goals. A country that has been a victim of terrorism for decades - and that maintains that nations should never negotiate with terrorist organizations - has done exactly that, exchanging 1,027 convicted terrorists (550 of whom were directly involved in multiple murders) for one soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Although the government initially considered military action to recover Shalit, who was abducted on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip in 2006, it was never a feasible option. Gaza's dense and hostile population would have made any rescue mission messy and dangerous. Moreover, Israeli intelligence had never determined his precise whereabouts. Over time - and under immense public pressure - the Israeli government began to entertain the notion of a political deal, the basic contours of which were drawn as early as 2007. (Israel would free roughly 550 Hamas prisoners, Hamas would free Shalit, and then Israel would free another 450.) At the time - and when it resurfaced in 2009 - the administration of then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert rejected the deal because the price was too high. Yet two and a half years later, both parties agreed to strikingly similar terms.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that he accepted the deal now for two reasons. First, he argues that he inherited the basic outlines of the swap from his predecessor, Olmert, and could not change them, certainly not with public opinion so strongly in favor of bringing Shalit home. And according to Netanyahu, regional developments made the agreement a now-or-never decision. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which hosts Hamas' political arm, is failing, and Hamas has been trying to find new accommodations; its options include post-Mubarak Egypt and Iran. Israel feared that Shalit could be transferred to Iran, which would have sealed his fate.

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But there are other reasons that Netanyahu acted now. In 2009 and 2010, when Israel also seriously considered striking a deal, several powerful figures in government opposed it. Meir Dagan, who was then the head of the Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, then the head of the General Security Service, argued that the terms of the deal patently rewarded terrorism and abductions, emboldened Hamas by giving it a clear advantage over the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, and projected Israeli weakness. The Netanyahu government could not form a consensus to override their objections so the deal died. By this fall, however, both men had been replaced by officials more supportive of a swap - Dagan by Tamir Pardo and Diskin by Yoram Cohen. Their support provided the administration the legitimacy among the security organs that it coveted.

Moreover, although the exchange deal runs contrary to Israel's stated counterterrorism policies, it should not have been surprising. At its roots, it was the product of a uniquely Israeli clash of two irreconcilable sets of values.

The first is the belief in military camaraderie and solidarity, and particularly the Israel Defense Forces tenet of "no soldier left behind." This is complemented by the ancient Jewish tradition of the redemption of prisoners, which has led to a general feeling that saving one live soldier is worth any price. This is typically Israeli; the country as a mother, making decisions based on parental instinct rather than cold cost-benefit calculations. This is the sentiment behind years of deliberations and indirect negotiations and a massive public campaign to bring Shalit home, no matter the cost.

The second set of values central to Israel's identity have to do with political realism, hardened by a lifetime of experience in the Middle East. These are the values that inform Israel's stated (but rarely followed) policy of not negotiating with terrorists. A country in Israel's geopolitical position must at all times exude confidence and strength. Any appearance of vacillation or equivocation could be interpreted as strategic impotence.

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For years, the first value won out. In 1983, the Yitzhak Shamir government freed 66 terrorists and 4,500 detainees captured during the 1982 war in Lebanon in return for six soldiers. In 1985, as part of the Gibril deal, the Shimon Peres government released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for eight Israeli soldiers. The 2004 Tannenbaum deal saw the Ariel Sharon government release 436 detainees in exchange for one Israeli reserve officer who was kidnapped by Hezbollah after being lured into a business deal. And in 2008, Israel exchanged scores of Lebanese and Palestinian detainees and prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured during a 2006 Hezbollah ambush on the Israeli-Lebanon border and who died shortly thereafter.

Then the pendulum swung in the other direction. The two most recent Israeli governments - those of Ehud Olmert and initially Netanyahu - favored the second value. They insisted on conducting no negotiations with terrorist organizations whose ostensible policy is the destruction of Israel. But Netanyahu gradually succumbed to the public and media campaign to conclude a deal with Hamas. He also came to understand that rescuing Shalit through a military operation was impossible. This was not so much a shift of policy, which remained rhetorically tough, but a recognition of the importance of Israel's first set of values.

In comparison to previous prisoner exchanges, the 1,027 prisoners freed for Shalit is asymmetrical but not unusually unbalanced. Even so, Netanyahu would have been wise to remember Dagan and Diskin's original objections. With no renewed peace process in sight, Israel has effectively sent the Palestinians a message that diplomacy and the political processes the Palestinian Authority  advocates are futile but that terrorism and kidnapping pay. Now, as Abbas continues to busy himself with diplomatic maneuvers at the UN (which have so far yielded no tangible achievements), Hamas will be able to consolidate its power base in Gaza and its reputation in the West Bank - this at a time when Iran's isolation and Syria's fragility should have weakened the group.

For their part, Israelis generally recognize the contradiction in their values; "I'm happy that Shalit is coming back, but I oppose the deal" is a constant and understandable refrain. And to be sure, Israel can withstand the release of the prisoners and terrorists it frees today. But this deal might be a bridge too far. The country has shattered whatever pretense it had to a coherent counterterrorism policy and whatever ability it had to deter terrorism. In other words, a bit of cognitive dissonance is fine for Israeli individuals, but not for a government. For now, the Netanyahu administration has chosen to be happy that Shalit is coming home, but it may come to regret that it was not more wary of the deal that brought him back.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alon Pinkas.

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Topics: Diplomacy • Israel • Palestinian Authority

soundoff (134 Responses)
  1. jay

    Hamas tasted the sweet of concession. It will be 5,000 prisoners on the next swap. I am in favor of peace through compromise, but this was a loopsided deal. It was more like an extortion than a deal.

    October 19, 2011 at 5:21 am | Reply
  2. Ayatollah Bear

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    October 19, 2011 at 5:36 am | Reply
    • Jade

      It's bnoeyd my intellectual ability to understand how the mind of someone like Mr. Rae actually works. I mean this man was a Rhodes Scholar!

      February 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  3. AC


    October 19, 2011 at 5:52 am | Reply
    • Mark

      Hey AC – you would probably look like that too after 5 years of incarceration with no contact wtih the outside world and little if any sunshine! Maybe you should try it?

      October 19, 2011 at 6:19 am | Reply
  4. AC


    October 19, 2011 at 5:58 am | Reply
  5. Frank Finnegan

    I, for one, am sick of hearing about news of Israel. The Jews represent a small minority in America, yet alls we seem to hear about is what is going on in Israel. Enough already! Why do we never hear news from Italy, Ireland, Africa, Mexico, Scotland, Spain, Canada? Are other ethnic groups in America not worthy of covering? This just reinforces the stereotype that Jews control the media. We need a more democratic press in America, one that covers all ethnic groups, and all classes and races.

    October 19, 2011 at 6:28 am | Reply
    • Mark

      Do you honestly think that Israelis and Jews want all this news coverage? Most of the press coverage is anti-Israel so why on earth would the Jews want this? You are spot on – there should be far move coverage of everything else. Tens of thousands of Mexicans have been murdered in the ongoing drug wars – why isnt this top new event?
      Trust me – its not the media controlling Jews (which they dont anyway) that are pushing the constant coverage!

      October 19, 2011 at 6:40 am | Reply
    • rick

      jews own and control Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and all the local newspapers? wow! I didnt realize this . thanks for the info!

      October 19, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  6. Mark

    I must me missing something here. Certain Palestinians commit serious crimes, they are tried in a court of law, found guilty and jailed. An Israeli is kidnapped by members of a terrorist organisation, denied every human right under the sun for 5 years, and is finally released in return for 1,000 convicted criminals having their sentences commuted.
    And Palestinians rejoice that their people are finally freed. From what? Being jailed for horrendous crimes?

    I would strongly suggest that Hamas not try another stunt like this one (kidnapping an Israeli as a bargaining chip in order to have the sentences of its criminals reduced). Because I would have no problem with Israel launching the mother of all attacks on Gaza and not stopping until the people of Gaza beg Hamas to return the Israeli. And you all know that not only can Israel do this, but it will, if pushed.

    October 19, 2011 at 6:32 am | Reply
    • James Baker

      Many Israels comitted many serious crimes and never and they did not put in a court of law. This is war between two nations and they have to resolve the issues by themself.

      October 19, 2011 at 7:45 am | Reply
      • miriam

        Strange comment. The country's prisons are full of Israelis who have been found guilty of all kinds of crimes in various courts of justice.

        October 19, 2011 at 9:18 am |
      • Reflecto

        "The country's prisons are full of Israelis who have been found guilty of all kinds of crimes in various courts of justice" Yes, but only for crimes against Jews. As you have stated very clearly here, Palestinians are only animals, and it is not a crime to kill animals. That's why it was OK to use US-made 155mm white phosphorous artillery shells against Palestinian schools and hospitals during Cast Lead. They were only barbecuing animals.

        October 19, 2011 at 10:44 am |
      • rick

        and if your grandmother had wheels she would have been a trolley car. unsubstantiated statements are simply fantasy

        October 19, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  7. Khader

    My brother was released in the deal, and believe me i was happy because of that and also happy because shalit went home, I dont call my Brother a terrorist, All international Laws allow Occupied nations to defend thier land so whats wrong. Im not against Israel, but Israel Want to take everything, If you wanna live free you also should give freedom to others. Israel learned from the SS how to humiliate people. and they are treating the prisoners like that.

    October 19, 2011 at 7:19 am | Reply
    • ManOfJustice

      dear Lhader,
      I don't know what your brother has done, but although it is legitimate to fight for freedom, it is NEVER NEVER NEVER right to murder innocent children and women. the main different between the IDF and the Hammas/ any terror organisation is that israeli army stands in front of it's citizens to defend them, while the Hamas hides cowardly BEHIND it's citizens to shoot and fire missiles from inside schools and homes...

      which life would you like your children to live according to?
      for the love of life and the value of human being or for the love of death and value of murder ?

      October 19, 2011 at 7:58 am | Reply
    • nimig

      Most israelis dont object a palestinian state too. i think someone is telling you wrong facts. most israelis dont want to control palestinian territories out of colonialism or nazi-styled expansion over other nations. the settelments are not a concencus in israel, and I can totally see most of them (unfortunatly not all of them) being moved in a peace agreement.
      The reason why israelis want israeli presence in palestinian territories, is because we really feel like without the IDF standing there, 20 km of Tel-Aviv, israel will be slaughtered in bombs like from gaza since it moved out of there.

      this is a logical way of thinking, based on the moving-out-of-gaza failure (mombing on israel only got more frequent), and on the thought that if your biggest enemy is standing on a mountain 15 km out of your city, wouldnt you want your army to stand there??

      can you understand this way of thinking?

      October 19, 2011 at 8:05 am | Reply
  8. James Baker

    Why the prisoner swap will harm Israel? are you kidding? Israel can get another 1,000 prisoners by tomorrow.

    October 19, 2011 at 7:32 am | Reply
    • Reflecto

      And Hamas can get a replacement Shalit in about 5 minutes. That is what this deal will bring.

      October 19, 2011 at 10:05 am | Reply
  9. Sindhi

    What a one side article written by a Zionist diplomate

    October 19, 2011 at 7:40 am | Reply
  10. Doron S

    Israel is a nation with a heart and soul, we do not leave our prisoners behind like other countries do.
    about the terrorirst, they they only think they are free, they are being watched and every move by the mossad.

    October 19, 2011 at 8:04 am | Reply
  11. Anderson Clayton

    Attention to Hamas and Hesbollah...
    The weakness of the beast has been detected, act imediately...

    This is no humanitariam act of greatness of Israel, it is just SATANyahu's thirst to stay in POWER!!

    October 19, 2011 at 9:07 am | Reply
  12. miriam

    What Alon Pinkus does not explain is the reason for the view that the release of the terrorists is not entirely contradictory to counter-terrorism efforts. The details are understandably far from being available for public knowledge but involve the increased ability and confidence that the security agencies has in preventing and fighting terrorism coming out of the West Bank, Gaza and surrounding territories. There is no shortage of terrorists who are involved in planning and carrying out attacks on Israelis and their persistent efforts have fortunately been largely unsuccessful. Returning some of the former prisoners into the territories does not change the terrorist statistics significantly and those released will not be able to disappear off the radar. Nevertheless, the release of these animals is hard to swallow and the joy we have witnessed in the celebrations is nauseating. It is clear that it is not just the terrorists who are immoral, but that the entire society is.

    October 19, 2011 at 9:14 am | Reply
    • Reflecto

      Yes, it is totally unnatural and sickening that those callous mothers and fathers are happy to have their sons and daughters back. They are obviously animals, or untermenschen, if you prefer that term. It has exactly that meaning, after all. Perhaps you have heard of it?

      October 19, 2011 at 10:37 am | Reply
  13. NoMosquesinUS

    Also, pay attention! Shalit is also a French citizen and France did not do anything at all to free him. Instead french were busy kissing and loving with palestinian terrorists! By I agree with most, that this is an Israel mistake of rewarding terrorist, kidnapings and it would follow in future acts of kidnapings.

    October 19, 2011 at 9:27 am | Reply
  14. Reflecto

    1027:1 is a great 5 year annualized rate!

    The next Israeli soldier is due to be kidnapped in 5...4...3.........

    October 19, 2011 at 10:04 am | Reply
    • miriam

      They've been trying to capture another soldier or civilian every day for the last 51/2 years and have been unsuccessful. Sorry to disappoint.

      October 19, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
    • Reflecto

      That haven't really needed one until now, have they? They certainly were able to grab him. You can't guard everyone all the time, so Israel is going to have to deal with more kidnappings. Paying off at 1027:1 absolutely guarantees that.

      October 19, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
      • rick

        paying back at 1000 to one is more like it, after all, the arabs agreed on the terms,

        October 19, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  15. Professor

    Actually if we are to be honest , we will found the following clear facts
    – Israel has been violating all laws in dealing with everyone ( palastenians , turkish ,.. ) and this is because they are fully supported by the USA ( israelis are the actual terrorists )
    – Israel has been killing and arresting thousands of people in palastine without any intevention or protection from the international community
    – Israel has been holding nuclear weapons with all the protection of the US while other countries such as Iraq for example was totally destroyed and occupied by US only because of the US claims that they are trying to develop this kind of weapons ( can anyone go and inspect the Israeli placee nuclear weapons )
    – Israel is enforcing a blockade on Gazza preventing all food , medical supplis ,.. to reach the people on there and meanwhle doing some assassinations every whil
    Who is the terrorrist ??!
    Finally , lets be honest only once and stop this blind support to Israel

    October 19, 2011 at 10:18 am | Reply
    • rick

      professor of what? clearly not history. as golda meir said: when the professor and his fellow jew haters love their children more than they love killing jews, there will be peace.

      October 19, 2011 at 11:57 am | Reply
    • Sam

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      February 11, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  16. omar

    Hamas is at war with the so called "state of israel".. shalit is not a civilian who was kidnapped from his parent's lap , shalit is a SOLDIER who was CAPTURED during a military operation by Hamas who is AT WAR with Shalit's ARMY .... get it ???? SOLDIER- CAPTURED not Civilian mama boy –kidnapped !!! GOD !

    October 19, 2011 at 10:23 am | Reply
    • rick

      you are right about something. shalit was a soldier and he was traded for 1000 killers who were not soldiers. but a least we now have a quid pro quo: 1000 for 1 and when the terrorists kill one jew israel is now justified in killing one thousand terrorists and their supporters. so omar quit the whining whch is what you jew haters do best, read your history, and treasure life as the israelis do. do you really think that the jews are going to pack up and leave israel? its time to join the real world!

      October 19, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply

    !!!!!!!!!---->>>>>>>....PALESTINIAN HATE....<<<<<<<----!!!!!!!!!!!........FriendsPalestinian Hate versus Jewish Insanity@ WALID SHOEBATalso Holder Reveals Iran Plot To Distract From ‘Fast and Furious,’ Ends Up Highlighting Cases’ Similarities:Click for full article written by yours truely@ WALID SHOEBAT

    October 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  18. ianrobinson7@hotmail.com

    Peace in the Middle East could be solved by an increase in co operation between both sides i.e both sides sitting down and talking with one another. After a 100 comments or more on this page/site is anybody actually reading this ?

    October 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  19. ianrobinson7@hotmail.com

    Oh God Bless those poor Dale Farm residents and beatiful Isreali people !

    October 19, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  20. Syndi Zilcha

    This is why:

    "Freed would-be suicide bomber tells kids to be like her"
    10/19/2011 17:05

    Kuntar urges Palestinians to capture Israeli soldiers
    10/19/2011 15:05
    (Kuntar was convicted in an Israeli court for murder of policeman Eliyahu Shahar, Danny Haran, and Haran’s four-year-old daughter, Einat, smashing her head against a rock and then against his rifle)

    But everything had to be done to bring Gilad back home. And now he's home.

    October 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  21. db

    Oh, don't worry! You can bet at least one out of the hundreds of terrorists released in the deal will strike! He will take a few israeli lives, perhaps more...? So, where is the idealism of no soldier left behind? What will you tell the mothers of those who will be killed by released Palestinian prisoners?

    October 19, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  22. Reema

    all of u shut up, the god want to be Israel not u and u decide not u.
    in Quran mention that it will be Israel and it happen.
    and the god love muslim people not how hate muslim and who reduces the respect of the muslim people will go to the hell
    and the god what he wants it happen

    October 19, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  23. A.K

    At least this exchange confirmes that one Israeli soldier is worth as much as more than a thousand Palestinians..

    October 19, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Reply

    For those who claim that some of the Palestinian prisoners are innocent, "under- age" or sweet women that were arrested for petty reasons. I have some breaking news for you.

    1. The Israeli prison works ONLY by the law. The law says that taking someone elses life is a crime which requires a life sentence in jail.
    2. The media industry and newspapers all over the world have better material to deal with than posting an article about every terror attack in israel. People who dont live in Israel will never understand what its like to be afraid of going on a bus, because it might explode and burn on fire, and moreover, they are not aware to the amount of innocent people are killed every year in those progroms. The human-being normal brain cant really percieve the picture of a palestinian 18-year-old boy killing with one knife a whole family at theire own house. This murder and his under-age cousin smiled when admitted that they shredded the 2 monthes old baby. Now they held by the israeli prison and get food, basketball games and a good medical service, while the hamas consider them as heros. (Happened on june 2011.)
    Another terrorist that is free now is Al Aziz Salahe.
    Look at the photo in the link below, on his hands there is a real blood of an israeli victim he just kiddnaped, brutally murdered and threw his dead body off the window to the palestinian mass' applause outside. (Occured in Ramallah, 2000)

    Most of people hearts wont never get that this can be reality, but this is the situation. Some of palestin educate their children to be Shahids- to die for the death of jews- as its mention in their Koraan.
    3. Israel WANT peace. Israel have a huge respect for human life- the swap is a proof. Killing innocent and intimidation people are NOT acceptable ways of negotiation.
    4. Every country has a prison which is holding murderers, unfortunately. Where else in the world can you see 1000 of them released for the security of the land itself and one young soldier? From an outside point of view this is a complete absurd. But this is way more complicated, if fact, the Israeli goverment almost didnt have a choise. Look at the weird equation: 1027 murderers are free and openly declare to keep harming israel, for the freedom of one young soldier who havnt seen a sunlight since 2006.
    5. I have some muslem friend who are well behaved, educated and kindhearted. Im not brainwashed at all, and I know good arabic people in israel who wont never harm somebody, and i believe that the real problem starts in the palestinian leadership: They are primitive, disrespect women, have no value for human life (when they kill each other- for example, when a man kills one of his wifes, he DOESNT get arrested, because in palestine uts allowed to be killed if you are cheating woman. no second chance).

    that the worls would finnaly understand the middle east conflict. Its hard to be solved but we all need to pray for peace.

    October 19, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  25. Doron S

    Israel has an unwritten contract between it's soldiers, that it will do anything to never leave even one soldier behind. Every Israeli is Proud to be an Israeli today, to be part of a nation valuing and saving the life of one single soul.

    Izadin El Kasam, Hizbulla & hamas think it's worth while kidnapping another soldier, but they forgot that the day Gilad Shalit was Kidnapped, we went into a war into Lebanon and killed over 1,000 terrorist, so was it worth messing arround with Israel? Also next time you will kidnap a soldier Israel will do crazier stuff.... This is the Palestine you want? a country that welcomes praises death and killing? Making peace with Hamas is like the USA making peace with AL QUEDA...Hamas declared loudly in every speach that it's not about Israel giving back land from the 69 war borders which Israel Won, but it's about throwing all of Israel out to the sea... I don't know what about you but I'd rather have a start-up nation like Israel with productive factories of high-tech in Israel like Intell / MIcrosoft / Google - rather than giving children books that teach to only destory the only land of high-tech and democracy in the middle east.

    October 19, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Reply
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