I first heard about Gilad Shalit while driving to work one day. Technically I didn’t hear about him, but rather, saw a billboard about him. As I drove north on La Cienega Boulevard a couple months ago, I noticed it on the east side of the street as I approached Olympic Boulevard. Each day I would pick up a bit more of the fine print. He’d been held captive for more than 1,800 days. He hadn’t seen any of his family or friends in five years. He needed to be freed and come home. I didn’t know anything about the Shalit situation, and wasn’t sure if it was legitimate, or a far fetched missing persons notice you’d see in a post office.
A few weeks after the billboard had been replaced by one promoting the Los Angeles Kings, the Gilad Shalit story took center stage in the national news. Israel, behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with help from Egyptian third party dealmakers, was negotiating his release. It would be a momentous event for the Israelis, bringing a soldier home to his family after five years in captivity as a prisoner of war. It would be a triumph for the world as well. It’s heartbreaking when a prisoner is held for a long time, and downright devastating to learn that one has been killed. It doesn’t matter if it’s a soldier or a civilian: It always hurts. But with the impending release of Shalit, the world would receive a welcome dose of humanity. A family could be made whole again. A prime minister could make an indelible mark on his legacy. Gilad Shalit was finally coming home, and it gave Israelis, not to mention Jewish people all over the world, a big reason to celebrate.
I would have liked to celebrate the release of Gilad Shalit. I really would have. And by celebrate, I don’t mean anything tangible. Just sort of nod my head, be glad that this young man was returned safely, and hope everything works out for him. But I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I was too overcome with feelings of disappointment, anger, and shock.
Because for Israel, the deal is a disgrace.
I’m admittedly not well versed on the finer details of middle eastern conflicts, but as a Jewish person, I know enough to hope for a peaceful solution where the Israeli people are no longer bothered, and can feel safe living freely in their state. I’ve heard a lot of people boast that the Shalit deal will work wonders in advancing the peace process. That it’s a national triumph, bringing a soldier home. That Israel now has the upper hand.
Wishful thinking for sure, and if it were true, it’d be something to celebrate. But I can’t help strongly disagreeing with all of the overly joyous sentiment and call out not only Israel, but everyone who is trumpeting the deal like it’s a tremendous victory.
When I first saw that Israel was trading over 1,000 prisoners, I was immediately skeptical, if not thoroughly confused. It makes no sense whatsoever. Israel was going to hand over more than 1,000 prisoners to Hamas in exchange for one person. These aren’t petty thieves Israel was going to let loose, either. These are dangerous, convicted killers. Murderers who have killed hundreds of Israelis through bombings and various other terrorist activities.
Take a second and think about it. If you were a head of state, would you sign off on the release of that many convicted criminals to free one soldier? Would you be able to sleep at night, knowing hundreds of killers are free and on the streets? I’m not saying Netanyahu had an easy choice to make, but it’s one in which I have trouble seeing the logic.
There have been a few different arguments in favor of the deal, and I’d like to address each of them. First off, there is the issue of human life, and being able to save one. I’ve read that rabbis are preaching the ultimate value of human life, and that if it’s possible to redeem a prisoner and preserve his life, Jewish people are obligated to make it happen. Rabbis are using the logic that saving Shalit is worth the risk because it’s a certainty that his life will be saved, and that even though terrorists are being set free, it’s only a possibility, and not a certainty, that they will revert to criminal behavior. Essentially, for the rabbis (and any others) making this argument, the point is that the certainty of one good thing trumps the possibility of many bad things.
I understand where these rabbis and other Jewish leaders are coming from, because it is important to secure the release of a POW, especially one held for as long as Shalit. But their logic is flawed, and they are thinking far too idealistically that it is clouding their judgment. In no way, shape, or form, is it logical to let over 1,000 people escape justice in order to free one prisoner. If you’re valuing human life above all else, it is not reasonable to free people who have made it their life’s work to take away human life. I’m not saying every prisoner being released is a killer or a high level threat to the Israeli people, but there are plenty of those types being released. It’s tough to tell if people who make this argument truly believe what they’re saying. If so, it’d place them in a group that is fundamentally, inherently skewed in its thinking, one that will defend Israel’s decisions to the death without thinking practically (there’s another group I’ll get to shortly). How else can you justify this kind of trade? How else can you drone on about the value of human life, and support the release of people who not only don’t value human life, but value the destruction human life? The answer lies in a blind devotion to Israel and Judaism that, while admirable, tends to hinder judgment in certain situations, the Shalit story being a prime example.
Additionally, the point of Shalit’s certain release being a happy enough event to outweigh the innumerable potential dangers posed by the Palestinian prisoner’s release is childish. Speaking purely from a numbers standpoint, all it would take is one of these 1,000+ freed prisoners to commit a crime that takes the life of one person in order to offset the joy of bringing Shalit home. It can sound crass to speak so statistically when dealing with human life, but sadly, it’s true. If any Israeli is killed as a direct result of releasing these prisoners—and by direct result I mean that a freed Palestinian prisoner kills an Israeli, even though the indirect ways that these 1,000 people could harmfully impact Israel are endless—I would love to see the same people using the ludicrous human life argument step up and admit that because they thought the Shalit deal was a good idea, someone else had to die for it. But I doubt that’ll happen. If the rabbis and other Israeli loyalists are willing to risk that these prisoners will not kill again, I can’t help but view them as radicals, people who drink the Talmudic kool-aid and lack the capability to think logically in situations like this one.
There’s the issue of Benjamin Netanyahu, and his desire to get the deal done. Netanyahu has been around Israeli politics forever, and this was not his first rodeo dealing with this kind of negotiation. I read a lot about the Shalit case on CNN, and found an interesting quote from Netanyahu in one article. In the piece, Netanyahu is quoted as saying:
“We wanted to get our POWs back, and the government, in my judgment, made a big mistake and traded terrorists. And here I was confronted with a situation that everything I believe in, in fact agitated for and tried to use an example of Israel for, to encourage other countries, especially the United States, to adopt a tough no-concessions policy against terrorists.”
Judging by the deal he just struck with Hamas, this is a curious quote. It would appear that he’s contradicting everything that just went down and is bashing his own deal. Here’s the kicker: He’s not talking about the Shalit deal. He’s talking about the Jibril Deal, which was similar to the Shalit deal. In 1985, Israel traded 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli POWs held my a Palestinian leader named Ahmed Jabril. At the time, Netanyahu opposed the deal. Three years after it was made, Netanyahu still opposed it, as evidenced by this quote he gave to Larry King in 1988. It’s clear to see that Netanyahu, in the past at least, would have never, not in a million years, made a deal like the one he made for Shalit. Okay, not a million years, more like 26 years, because at some point between 1985 and 2011, he completely flipped on the issue and made nearly the exact same deal he abhorred so publicly in the 1980’s.
What changed? Maybe he was concerned about his legacy. It’s possible that instead of a hard liner when it came to prisoner negotiations, he wants to be viewed, ultimately and historically, as someone who’s striving to get the deal done and not someone taking an immovable position in the talks. Maybe he wants to be viewed as the guy who made the hard decisions in order to bring peace to the region. Maybe he didn’t want Shalit to suffer the same fate that befell Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator who was captured 25 years ago and never freed as a result of failed rescue missions and the inability to strike a deal. Or maybe he just, over the course of a quarter century, changed his mind about these kinds of trades. Anything is possible. I do not fully understand what Netanyahu’s final logic was, or what the breaking point was when he decided “Okay, we will make the swap” and decided to go for it.
In voicing my displeasure with Netanyahu, it’s a bit trickier because I don’t know what he was thinking. After all, he is a politician. His job is to serve his people. If the majority of his people wanted the deal to be made, then he did his job effectively. His job is also to act in the best interest of his country, especially in regards to preserving the people’s safety. To that end, I believe he failed miserably. His country is no safer now that Shalit is free, and is infinitely more vulnerable now that the released Arabs are free to do as they please. It seems that Netanyahu had been so staunch his entire career against making such deals, but when the length, breadth, and overall weight of the Shalit situation got to him, he folded and did something he previously would have never done.
Israeli culture and tradition stipulates that redeeming captives is of the utmost importance. To Israelis, bringing home freed prisoners represents a national triumph, something to be proud of at the end of the day. By those standards, the Shalit deal makes some sense. The goal was accomplished and the captive was redeemed by Israel and returned to his family. I’ve made it quite clear that I think it’s a flawed belief system, and that certain prices are not worth paying for the release of a prisoner. That’s why it’s been so bothersome for me to read and hear others trumpet this deal like it’s a success for Israel. I already addressed the people who stick to such fundamental Israeli beliefs and play up the angle of “valuation of human life” and “redemption of captives.” There is another group I’d like to address: people who should know better, but are talking themselves into the deal. When the deal was finalized, I saw some people Tweeting and posting on Facebook about what a tremendous success it was. Linking to articles detailing the parameters of the deal, gushing about how wonderful it’d be to have Shalit free and home with his parents. Mostly from young adults, people I’ve known throughout the years, Americans who identify strongly with Israel, and who may have even visited Israel at some point. Honestly, it’s baffling to me. While the blindly devoted Israeli loyalists don’t know any better and have fundamental errors in their thinking, I’d group these people as intelligent, thoughtful minds who are convincing themselves of something. In this case, using whatever they can hold on to as a means to justify the trade. Trying to talk themselves into the fact that terrorists are now freely walking the streets being acceptable because one soldier is coming home. If these same people had seen that the United States that had released 1,000+ terrorists from, say, Guantanamo Bay, in return for one POW, would they have had the same reaction? I highly, highly doubt it. I can’t guarantee it, but the American way—hell, the logical way—of thinking states that you do not negotiate with terrorists, especially when the trade is so imbalanced and disproportionate. Yet, when it comes to Israel, people who may think logically about such deals become all tickled and giddy at the prospect of returning an Israeli soldier home safely, to the point where logic flies out the window. It’s almost as if they take more pride in the Israeli Army than the American military, and value the lives of Israeli soldiers more than American soldiers. Israel has a rough history with wars, terrorist attacks, and overall destruction. Whether it was the Egyptians and the Babylonians in biblical times, or the Palestinians in modern times, Israel has not had it easy. That is what increases the appeal of freeing a soldier from captivity: Israel is viewed as the underdog, the little engine that could, the country that has to take the deal when the bad guys give them the option. However, given everything we know today about terrorist recidivism, hostage situations, and negotiations, it is irresponsible to view the Shalit deal as a positive, and I’ve been exceptionally bothered by those who are doing so.
Shalit is free, and so are the prisoners. I’ve been told that now Israel has the upper hand with the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, and anyone else who presents problems for them. That because Israel bit the bullet, did the deal, and set 1,000 Arab prisoners free, they should be in control of any sort of peace talks. That if Hamas attacks Israel anytime soon, Israel can use complete and absolute force to counterattack, using the logic that Israel is now the good guy because they took the shit end of the stick on the Shalit trade. They couldn’t rescue him in a true military sense, so they copped out and traded away dangerous criminals.
I’ve made it pretty clear how I feel about the issue, and now let me say this: I kind of hope I’m wrong. Oh, I love being right. I really, really, enjoy being right, and I just spent a good amount of time explaining why I think I’m right. Even if I am wrong and the Shalit trade yields eternal peace, I’ll still contend that I was right at the time. But I hope I’m wrong. I hope this deal does grease the gears towards peace. I hope the released Palestinians return to their homes, reformed and well behaved, and live peaceful, quiet lives with their families, never to commit an act of terrorism again. I hope Shalit enjoys being home, and thrives now that he’s earned a second chance at life. Maybe I’m being cynical, maybe I’m being overly realistic, but I just don’t see it all happening. Only time will tell if the release of Gilad Shalit ends up being worth the bounty given up for him. We can only hope it does.