Sunday, October 23, 2011

Baumesiter/Weinbaum - Sobering truths

Konrad Baumeister/Laurence Weinbaum
21 October '11

There is a growing disconnect between the collective security that the people demand from the government, and the pressure they exert on it for the return of captives; allowing this gap to widen will not lead to increased security.

Israel is in the Middle East, “a villa in the jungle,” as Ehud Barak famously called it. That fact does not mean that the Jewish state should descend to the moral level of its neighbors. It does mean that it cannot disregard the local playbook. Israel takes pride in the value it places on every single human life − above all, its soldiers’ lives − as evidenced by the outpouring of emotion over the protracted captivity of Gilad Shalit, and his release this week. That is a sign of humanity sadly absent in large parts of the world, and especially in this region. However, in confronting adversaries whose values are so radically different, the Shalit deal is a sign of weakness.

Were the ordeals of captured soldiers not regularly treated as headline news, a trend that exerts undeniable and even irresistible pressure on the government to “do something − anything,” Israel’s negotiating position might be far stronger, and success in freeing them more likely. Changing the trend, of course, is difficult, if not impossible, in a society with a free press and free speech − and especially if the public is not convinced that the government is making adequate efforts − yet the idea certainly offers food for thought.

There is a growing disconnect between the collective security that the people demand from the government, and the pressure they exert on it for the return of captives. Allowing this gap to widen will not lead to increased security.

Redeeming captives is an age-old Jewish imperative, and Israel has always been committed to “bringing its boys home.” But the price has skyrocketed. In 1979, it was 76 to one; in 1985, in the deal in which arch-terrorist Ahmed Jibril was released, 380 to one. On that occasion, the late Shmuel Katz, Jabotinsky’s biographer, wrote of an Arab world “absorbing a campaign of inspirational propaganda, on Israel’s moral weakness and indeed contemptibility, on the reduced risks for captured Arab heroes, on the assurance that there will always be available at least a handful of Israeli hostages from an Israel dominated by tearful mothers.”

Today, one must again ask whether Israel has acted responsibly. That question transcends partisan politics. No matter how much one empathizes with the suffering of the Shalit family − and one would have to have a heart of stone not to identify with their pain − the future of the state and the well-being of its citizens cannot be subordinated to the fate of a single soldier.

To be sure, the most serious issue is not the infusion of another 1,027 murderers into a sizeable pool of terrorists already at large, happily plotting away. It is the encouragement and validation of the deal itself − a major concession that excites and incites those ‏(a majority perhaps‏) who are sympathetic to the terrorists and who now understand that “crime does pay.” Already there are calls in Gaza, Ramallah and even Jerusalem for “more Shalits.”

In the future, the hazards of agreeing to such deals may be staggering. The notion that henceforth Israel will stand firm − or that any subsequent deals with terrorists over the lives of captives will be any less lopsided − must be dismissed as fatally self-deceptive. Where is the precedent for the terms improving in Israel’s favor? One only wonders what would have been done had Hamas set the bar differently − say, conditioning Shalit’s release on withdrawal from territory or the delivery of war materiel.

A state is responsible for the fate of its citizens and it is acting as it should when it discharges that obligation. But the constant obsession over the life of a single soldier by an entire nation, and its demonstrable willingness to pay an excruciating price for his return, all but guarantees that other terrorists will do anything to seize more. Hostage-taking certainly bears more fruit than lobbing primitive, if occasionally lethal, rockets over the border.

Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi was correct, writing in Tablet earlier this week, in describing the Hamas leaders’ boast of victory as “a victory of shame ... an expression of the Arab crisis.” He went on to say that, “The Arab world’s challenge is to shift from a culture that sanctifies honor to a culture that sanctifies dignity. Honor is about pride; dignity is about human value. Hamas may have upheld its honor; but Israel affirmed the dignity of a solitary human life.”

Hamas, of course, doesn’t see it that way.

When a great power obsesses over individual casualties sustained in military engagements, its days in the great power business are numbered. When a beleaguered Israel allows itself to be manipulated in a manner not dissimilar to the way in which Jimmy Carter was handled by Iran during the embassy hostage crisis in 1979-80, it is conceivably dealing itself a serious defeat in the near or medium-term future.

Sentimentalism is never an asset in statecraft and certainly not when confronting terrorists who have always behaved as if they consider people to be less important than spare parts ‏(their mothers can always make more‏). Even as Israel revels in the return of its lost son, sharing in the Shalit family’s relief and joy, it cannot ignore these sobering truths.

Konrad Baumeister is a U.S.-based political commentator. Dr. Laurence Weinbaum is the editor of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.

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