Saving Shalit To Save Israel: Why Netanyahu Made The Deal With Hamas
The deal Jerusalem made for Gilad Shalit’s freedom represents a return to Israel’s core values — especially its pledge never to leave a soldier behind. As the country’s enemies multiply and its social fabric decays, such a principle could rescue the country, too.
No one in Israel is calling the agreement signed for Gilad Shalit’s freedom a good deal. On many levels it is terrible. Israel is releasing more than 1000 prisoners, several hundred of them hardened terrorists, for one soldier. For the first time, the Jewish state essentially acquiesced as a terrorist organization dictated the list of prisoners to be released, including several responsible for mass deaths of Israeli citizens, a notion that would once have been unthinkable. Israel may well have given its enemies incentive to kidnap more soldiers. And the terrorists now being released are likely to attack and kill Israelis in the future.
Despite these facts, the deal for Shalit passed a cabinet vote by an overwhelming margin (26 in favor and only three opposed), and the vast majority of Israeli citizens support it. In agreeing to this prisoner swap, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public chose to return to their roots, to revive a central tenet of old-time Israeli ideology: we do not leave our sons in the field.
The tenet is as old as the country itself. It stems from the fact that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a citizens’ army, in which conscription is universal and every family knows that it could face the same tragedy as the Shalits. And in the army itself, the “stretcher march,” in which soldiers in training are ordered to carry one of their heaviest comrades on a stretcher up hills and down valleys for miles, is a formative ritual meant to instill one message: there is never a case in which soldiers cannot bring their wounded home.
This ethic is taught in other armies, too, but it resonates differently in Israel. From the moment of his capture, Gilad Shalit has been a household name. Compare this to the silence in the United States regarding Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held hostage by the Taliban since June 2009. Ever since Shalit’s kidnapping, Israeli society has been wracked by a sense that it failed in its obligation to him.
Bringing Shalit home, the costs of the agreement with Hamas notwithstanding, is thus a fulfillment of an honored tradition. And it comes at a time when many of Israel’s old assumptions about its surroundings no longer hold. As the country struggles to navigate the economic and political upheavals in the Middle East and across the world, the agreement represents a return to Israel’s founding values — an opportunity for politicians and citizens alike to reassure themselves that, in some ways, today’s Israel is still the same country in which many of them were raised.
The Shalit agreement was prompted by the Israeli security establishment’s realization that it could not rescue its captive soldier. The very incident in which Shalit was captured — a cross-border Hamas raid from Gaza — was an abject failure for the IDF. In the five years since the kidnapping, the same military that destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in June 1967 and that rescued over one hundred hostages from Entebbe, Uganda in 1976 continuously told the government that it had no means of freeing a soldier being held just beyond the border. Admittedly, over the past generation, Israel’s enemies have become far more sophisticated. But this deal, along with Israel’s lack of military options to address the Iranian nuclear threat, has left Israelis feeling an unfamiliar sense of weakness…