The deal and the catch
The joy that washed over Israel upon Gilad Shalit’s return was not shared by all. The outcry from the deal’s opponents was not pushed aside, despite the images of Gilad reuniting with his parents. Dr. Yaakov Hasdai, a renowned historian, believes the deal to be a failure since it bolsters Hamas while casting Israel in the role of the weaker party. Hasdai attributes this weakness to Israeli culture and its people’s willingness to sacrifice, but he also views the rescuing of its captives as a supreme moral imperative. Nonetheless, he calls on all of us to do some soul-searching.
"Obviously, this deal is an Israeli failure,” Dr. Yaakov Hasdai.
Photo credit: Dudi Vaaknin
Amid the avalanche of emotion that washed over Israel since news broke of the initialed deal that would free Gilad Shalit, little room was left for any other type of discussion. Now is the time to rejoice. The reckoning will come later. Nonetheless, I made my way to Jerusalem for a conversation with Dr. Yaakov Hasdai, a renowned historian and retired army colonel who was awarded a citation for bravery in battle.
Hasdai has carved a niche in the Israeli public's consciousness as a man of rare integrity whose sharply critical eye is unsparing of all political camps. As part of the Agranat Commission, he investigated the oversights and lapses that preceded the Yom Kippur War, a historically pivotal episode that still serves as his compass. In our conversation, he alluded to that war more than once for the purposes of comparison and for internalizing the lessons learnt.
Hasdai views the Gilad Shalit affair as a byproduct of the crisis that has befallen Israeli society, a story that bears the hallmarks of all the elements of the Israeli “situation.” He calls on the public to tone down the euphoria and enthusiasm that has taken hold of it in recent days.
“The joy is of a private nature,” he said. “As private individuals, we can feel sympathy and share in happiness but as a society and a nation, we need to look at our situation and do some soul-searching as to where we stand.”
An Israeli failure
“Obviously, this deal is an Israeli failure,” Hasdai said. “Between Israel and Hamas, there is a life-and-death struggle, at least according to their perspectives. In this struggle, they have scored a considerable number of points, of this there is no doubt.”
“First and foremost, I am concerned about the possibility that this deal will be portrayed as a victory from our standpoint,” he said. “The moment you declare yourself a winner, there is no longer a need for a reckoning. If there is failure, then there is a greater chance that there will be some soul-searching. This reminds me of the situation that took shape after the Yom Kippur War, which the political and military establishments also sought to portray as a victory.”
“Irrespective of the joy felt by the Shalit family and many other people in this country who identify with the family and with the overall sense of happiness, which is totally justified, from the standpoint of the state of Israel’s struggle for its existence, this is a failure against the most determined enemy that is facing it today,” he said.
From what standpoint is it a failure? Is it due to the very fact that Israel negotiated with Hamas?
“The failure is rooted in the fact that in the standoff with Hamas, Hamas made clear gains, both on the Palestinian front as well as on the international front, given that it has held negotiations with international players,” he said. “From Israel’s standpoint, it is a failure because it paid the price of over 1,000 convicted terrorists in exchange for one soldier. This raises great doubt as to our steadfastness in the face of pressure.”
“Another aspect that isn’t being talked about is our justice system, which is our rock-solid foundation that must be protected against any attempts to undermine it,” he said. “What is the significance of releasing terrorists when measured against the public’s faith in the Israeli criminal justice system? Why are we taking people who by dint of a legal conviction were supposed to spend the rest of their lives in jail and simply clearing their records completely? Why?”
On a formal level, the legislature allowed for the possibility of nullifying convictions by creating the option of pardons and clemency.
“Clemency is only given in certain situations. In the cases of clemency or pardons, it is determined if the judge recanted or if there are requests or recommendations, or a number of other factors. This is a solution that is used for an altogether different purpose.”
Do you see any positive aspects in this deal?
“If we get down to details, we see that there are a few terrorists who were not released, and the fact that Israel insisted on not releasing them is to its credit.”
What about the fact that Hamas agreed to the deportation of a few of the released prisoners?
“There are a lot of issues that are discussed in the media extensively. I’m not an expert on Hamas, but I do examine this issue from the vantage point of Israeli society. In its struggle against Hamas, and in this particular struggle [for Shalit], Israeli society has paid an extraordinarily heavy price.”
A dwindling generation
Still, Israeli society undertook great pains to free Shalit.
“What led to this outcome? This is not a natural thing that should be taken for granted. In the War of Attrition, there were pilots who were held captive by the Syrians and the Egyptians for three years, and there was no outcry that we needed to hurry up and release them. So you can say that in those cases there was never any fear that their lives were in danger, while in this case there was such a fear. But this is not a good enough reason. Before the Yom Kippur War, Israeli society accepted the axiom that individuals needed to pay a price in the name of the national interest. Nowadays, Israeli society does not accept this. This is a very profound change.
“First of all, it is worth defining the term ‘values,’ because in the discussion on Shalit, this issue was raised in a very one-sided manner. Generally speaking, values are a demand that we concede an interest in gaining certain pleasures in order to attain a goal or to uphold principles. There are values that obligate the individual to society. When you demand that the individual, as a soldier, sacrifice his life and enlist in the army, giving up years of his life. There are values in which society is asked to sacrifice for the sake of the individual, like human rights and freedom. A healthy society is a balanced society, one that recognizes the state’s obligation to defend the rights of the individual, while the individual recognizes his or her obligation to give up certain things for the benefit of the state and for the sake of the national interest.
“During the previous generation, it was understood that there needed to be this balance. On the other hand, in this generation, the discussion of human rights has become the dominant theme. We rarely hear talk about the obligations of the citizen and the individual toward society and the state. This is partly influenced by global trends, but there is also another reason that is unique to us. Since the first Lebanon War, the moral dimension has been injected into the political arena. This is quite a far-reaching thing.
“The demand then was to give decisive weight to moral considerations when shaping policy. This is a serious problem, because when managing policy one weighs interests. When you place moral limitations on yourself, you tie one hand behind your back. Sometimes, you tie both hands. This moral discussion has evolved and taken on entirely new dimensions. The claim then was that we needed to get out of Judea and Samaria due to moral considerations. The question of course is whether these moral claims are strong enough to justify taking risks.”
Is there not a need to take moral factors into consideration when determining policy?
“There is no doubt that moral considerations should be taken into account, but we also need to understand what the significance of this is. The history of the 20th century teaches us that tyrannical regimes that have no restraints emerge victorious when they are opposed by moral forces or states that are limited by interests. In this regard, when it comes to the Shalit deal, the argument in favor of national interest – in other words, the claim that is predicated on values - was not adequately made against the moral claim that we needed to bring him back home.”
The Gilad Shalit episode left many people torn between emotion and logic. Is it moral for a private citizen to tell the Shalit family that there are more important things than their son?
“It is certainly moral from the value-based standpoint of saying that our national interest in this case is much more significant than the private, individual interest. But you injected the issue of emotion, which is an entirely different matter altogether. Emotion can be exploited by the media to inflate these values to an intolerable point, which is what the Israeli media did. It inflated the naturally felt emotions that were carried by everyone – identifying with the party that is suffering and persecuted – and as a result of this emotional identification, the moral-value balance evaporates.”
How did we reach a point where there was no choice but to go through with the deal?
“This is also something that should get us thinking. Every clear-thinking person will ask, ‘How is it that a country which has all military means at its disposal and a military superiority that is unmatched in terms of weapons and manpower fails to wage balanced war? How did it become impossible to defeat them from a military standpoint?’
“I do take into account the fact that it was impossible to physically extricate [Shalit] from captivity, but there were economic means which could have been used to pressure the Gaza Strip, military means. We could have abducted Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. There’s a wide range of means.”
Why were they not utilized?
“In my view, the answer is that Hamas managed to create a balance of terror against Israel, the same balance that Hezbollah created in the north. Namely, those huge arsenals of missiles, Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s, that are capable of threatening large swaths of the state of Israel create a situation in which Israel is straitjacketed when it comes time to respond. It is also straitjacketed because of the signs of weakness displayed by Israeli society. Today, no government is capable of taking the risk that a military operation would lead to a repeat of what took place during the Second Lebanon War, only this time in much greater dimensions.”
Is Israeli society willing to sacrifice victims in order to ensure its future?
“This is a decisive question that also came up in relation to the Shalit deal. As of now, I have doubts about that both because of the values crisis as well as the leadership crisis.”
Who is defending whom? It seems that Israeli society is more shocked over the deaths of soldiers in uniform than citizens who are killed in terrorist attacks.
“If public campaigns always speak about bringing their kids back home, then obviously children are held dearer than older citizens. This is part of the process that I noted before. People do not understand that a young man’s enlistment into the army is a part of the value system in which sacrifice for the sake of the state and in the name of national existence is called for. Once this principle was weakened, then what we have are ‘children.’ The use of this term, which is fraught with so much significance, started with the ‘Four Mothers’ movement. Mothers and children – these emotive motifs were injected into the conversation so as to replace genuine, value-based considerations. The line that separates emotions and values has been blurred. Mercy and compassion are not values, but feelings. Sometimes, they could serve completely negative goals.
“When they used the word ‘children,’ they gave the discussion an emotional dimension. Since the value of service and obligating oneself to the state has dissipated, we were left with a herd of frightened children who were sitting in Lebanon and who quickly needed to be picked up under the wings of their mothers. As a young soldier, I would have been quite insulted by this. It sends a message that is anti-educational, one that says that soldiers are incapable of sound judgment and decision-making. We heard this line of reasoning with regards to Shalit as well. He is not a child, he is a grown person who fulfilled his obligation and paid a price that was slightly lower than that paid by his comrades who were near him [when the abduction took place].
“This is not intended to harm the love and concern expressed by the parents. These are emotions that deserve understanding, sympathy, and consideration. But these are not part of the value system that governs our society.”
Bring down Hamas
Shimshon Liebman, who headed the campaign that lobbied the government to agree to a swap for Shalit, said that the ratio of 1,000 prisoners to one Israeli soldier is indicative of our moral fortitude. What about the value of returning our captive prisoners of war?
“The terrorists were supposed to sit in jail for the rest of their lives and to pay the price for what they did. This is justice in its most supreme sense. Are we holding these terrorists in jail out of revenge? No. It is because this is the most appropriate thing – with the exception of death, from which they were also spared - given their actions. As for the 1,000:1 ratio, if they would have brought back one person in exchange for one person, would this have been so bad? In other words, is the 1,000:1 ratio a victory?”
The argument is that the ratio is a testament to values, given that we were willing to give up 1,000 in exchange for one.
“I did not say rescuing our captives has no value. But there is a price for everything. After a march that they held for Shalit, I wrote a newspaper column asking whether the marchers were willing to send the IDF to war in the Gaza Strip in order to release him? If any price is acceptable for his release, then let us go to war. The price could also be a war in which 20 soldiers die. Are they ready for this? If not, then they are not willing to pay any price.”
Now that the swap is behind us, what can we learn from it? And do you have any operative advice for next time?
“We are discussing theoretical and philosophical questions, but Israel needs to pass a law which stipulates that any terrorist who was given a life sentence, set free, and then re-arrested for planning or engaging in terrorist attacks can expect to be given the death penalty. We cannot have a situation where prison is a revolving door. This needs to be said unequivocally: released terrorists can take advantage of their second lease on life, but if afterward they return to their misdeeds, then that is the end of the road.
“The second lesson relates to a wider context. We cannot reconcile with Hamas rule in Gaza. Are we supposed to accept the fact that each time they kidnap one of our soldiers they can retreat into their protected camp that is off limits to our army? Are we supposed to wait for the next abduction in order to utilize additional measures against Hamas?”
You’re talking about toppling the Hamas regime?
What? And we are supposed to take control there once again?
“Look, the situation in Judea and Samaria is good because it combines two elements. On the one hand, we have Palestinian self-rule. They run their own affairs. On the other hand, there is complete freedom of operation for the IDF. This created a positive dichotomy. In my view, we need to allow this to continue to whatever degree this is possible.”
What other lessons do you draw from this whole affair?
“There is one conclusion that many people can agree upon in their heart of hearts but they would never say so publicly, and that is that whenever a murderer is apprehended, he or she should be shot on the spot. But this is a conclusion that a civilized country cannot live with. So Israel needs to show an intolerance.
“After this affair, our responses to these actions need to be more severe than they were in the past. We need to remember that we have adversaries who do not have limitations, and if we tie our own hands too much, then we will lose the battle. Hamas needs to learn that from now on, every rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, every attempted terrorist attack will provoke an especially harsh response. We need to physically emphasize this, on the ground, that we will not reconcile with terrorism anymore.”