Israel Not a Model for U.S. on Prisoner Exchanges
One thing supporters of the Obama administration raise to defend the prisoner swap involving apparent Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl is that Israel has done it, too, so that makes it okay. This is wrong on several counts. Some Israeli exchanges, like that of captured Israeli tank crewman Gilad Shalit, are materially different. But a more frank and compelling argument is that the United States ought not model itself on Israel in when it comes to prisoner exchanges at all. Israel’s policy in this area is its own business, but it is at best controversial, and not something that a large nation and world power such as the United States should emulate.
Over many decades, the Israelis have made numerous prisoner swaps, all of them disproportionate. Some were perfectly conventional and honorable exchanges of prisoners of war, while others were far more problematic exchanges between convicted terrorists and, sometimes, Israelis who fell into enemy hands in less than heroic circumstances.
Israel’s policy of agreeing to prisoner swaps encourages violence and additional kidnapping attempts, which its enemies launch in order to generate further exchanges. Not only does Israel’s willingness to trade prisoners endanger Israeli soldiers and civilians, but in in 2006, it provoked a full-scale war with Hezb'allah. During fighting in Gaza in 2004, the body parts of slain Israeli soldiers were grotesquely collected by Palestinian civilians and guerrillas for their exchange value. All Arab adversaries now make capturing Israeli hostages a priority in combat.
Israel’s Arab enemies, quite cognizant of Israeli politics and public sentiment, repeatedly take advantage of the situation – not only to free captured terrorists through exchanges, but also to humiliate Israel. Israelis captured under embarrassing or less than heroic circumstances are more likely to be exchanged than those captured more honorably, because the Arabs don’t want exchanged Israelis to be seen as heroes if they can help it.
For example, a number of Israeli servicemen were captured by Arab forces during the 1982 Lebanon War and operations that followed. Those captured were an airman, Ron Arad, whose plane went down over Lebanon; a trio of tank crewmen forced to abandon their vehicle after it was knocked out in fierce fighting in the Bekka Valley; and a squad of less than alert infantrymen who surrendered themselves and their position without a fight after being surprised by Arab fighters. Of the three groups, the infantrymen – whose conduct was described by then Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Levy as “unacceptable” – were all swapped for over 4,000 Palestinians and Lebanese prisoners. On the other hand, the captured tank crewmen were never exchanged (probably they were executed), while Ron Arad, despite extensive Israeli efforts to rescue him or make an exchange, almost certainly died after years in captivity.
In 2004, Israel exchanged over 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the bodies of three Israeli servicemen and Elahanan Tannenbaum. In 2000, Hezb'allah operatives lured Tannenbaum to Dubai with the promise of a lucrative illegal drug deal and kidnapped him. Tannenbaum admitted to willingly participating in the drug deal, and Israel paid a high price for him anyway.
Gilad Shalit’s capture, though distinguishable from Bergdahl’s because Shalit was captured in action, was nonetheless a major embarrassment for the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Shalit and his fellow tank crewmen were surprised and easily overpowered by Palestinian infiltrators.
In 1997, another Israeli soldier, Guy Hever, went missing on the Golan Heights in circumstances not dissimilar to Bergdahl’s. Last seen by fellow troops on a hot August morning, Hever, facing the consequences of several disciplinary infractions, left his artillery post, never to be seen again. While there is no evidence one way or the other suggesting that Hever deserted, even if he had, Israel’s extensive efforts to learn his fate, and to retrieve him, leave little doubt that had he deserted and been captured, Israel still would have paid a high price to get him back.
The point of this recounting is to show that for the majority of Israelis, these complications do not matter much, if at all, in the end. Some Israelis have already cheered American readiness to make the exchange for Bergdahl. Regardless of whether the Shalit deal, or any other Israeli deal, is distinguishable from Bergdahl’s, the fact remains that given Israel’s history of prisoner swaps, there can be little doubt that Israel would have done the deal, too, and perhaps at an even higher price.
It is not for me to judge the Israelis. I am not Israeli, I did not serve in the IDF, and I do not have children who serve or have served in the IDF. Israelis are entitled to weigh the pros and cons of these exchanges, make their own decisions, and live with the consequences. But Israel’s consistent liberal policy regarding such exchanges is simply not one the United States should emulate.
Israel is a tiny nation of 8 million (of whom its 6 million Jews bear the brunt of military service). America’s population exceeds 300 million. Israel’s community is much smaller than America’s, so the fate of each citizen looms larger. Israel’s armed forces are conscripted, while America’s are voluntary. A government owes conscripted soldiers more, since they are compelled by the state to serve, rather than knowingly taking on a potentially dangerous duty. And Israel, of course, bears the burdens of thousands of years of Jewish persecution and massacre. While this imbues the Israelis with admirable spirit, it also weighs heavily when the fate of its citizens is on the line.
Conversely, Israel balances its willingness to strike deals with an equal willingness to ruthlessly use any means necessary to battle enemies when it can. Exchanged prisoners who return to terrorism often end up dead. Israel will kidnap enemy leaders for the purposes of an exchange. And Israel will conduct high-risk rescue operations when they are feasible. In all these respects, Israel has been more aggressive and successful than the United States, and probably always will be.
The bottom line is that the United States is a huge nation with a generally positive and uplifting historical narrative, and a great power with global responsibilities, while Israel is a small regional power with heavy historical burdens. The United States can better absorb and resist the lure of redeeming captives at a high price. On the other hand, global responsibilities and complex international relations may tie our hands at times when the Israelis would take action.
Israel has much to offer the United States in many areas. But when it comes to setting an example for prisoner exchanges, it is best for the U.S. to look elsewhere.