There is no way around the contradictions and dangers inherent in Israel’s decision to free more than 1,000 prisoners in order to liberate Gilad Schalit, the soldier kidnapped by Hamas five years ago. Yes, this is a victory for Hamas, in that it demonstrates to Palestinians that Hamas is able to free their prisoners when Fatah and the PLO are not. Yes, this gives Hamas an incentive to kidnap another soldier and get back more terrorists in exchange for him. Yes, this is a danger to all Israelis because past recidivism rates among freed terrorists have been very high. Yes, the deal is extremely painful for survivors of Israelis killed by some of the Palestinian terrorists who will now enjoy freedom.
So why do the vast majority of Israelis support the decision? It is not that they, or the Israeli government, overlooked any of these issues. But at bottom, Israelis believed the argument that lay behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense of his decision: There was indeed an unbreakable obligation to bring Schalit home.
Here one must acknowledge that Israel is simply different from the United States. Its Jewish population is but 5 million, less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population. The United States is physically more than 450 times as large as Israel. And Israel, unlike the United States, has a conscript army consisting of young people like Gilad Schalit, and military service is nearly universal. For the great majority of Israelis, then, the soldiers are their children — or at least their neighbors’ or cousins’ children — and they must be brought home.
From the early days of the state, there has been a policy of doing everything possible through military action or covert operations to rescue captives, and when that is impossible, to trade for them — but always to recover them. Israel has even traded for the bodies of soldiers who were killed in action. This is the product of the compact between the citizen army and the society: We protect you and you protect us. And this is one of the reasons Israelis always reject efforts to punish soldiers for their actions in combat: Again, they are protecting the Jewish state and in turn it will protect them, such as in the Goldstone Report with unjust accusations emanating from the United Nations.
Finally, this policy has deep roots in Jewish history: The ransoming of captives has been practiced by Jews for many centuries and has been regarded as a greater obligation than charity for the poor. It is explicit that even precious religious articles can be sold to obtain funds for gaining the retrieval of captives.
The same religious tradition holds that it is wrong to “overpay” for captives lest kidnappers and enemies be given a greater incentive to take prisoners. So whether in ancient or medieval times or today’s state of Israel, the dilemmas cannot be escaped. The dangers and contradictions exist, but, unlike us, Israelis cannot just debate them: they must make decisions. And so they have. Their policy is not ours, as their situation is not ours.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow on Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from The Weekly Standard.