The Israeli kidnapping dilemma: How to respond beyond the search

On Oct. 10, 1994, not long after midnight, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) office got a call from the brother of a soldier, Nachshon Wachsman: The soldier was supposed to come home but never made it. The brother was somewhat concerned. Six hours later, the mother also called. Wachsman was still missing. It took the military five more hours or so, until, at 11:35 a.m., it activated the procedure for locating missing soldiers. A friend was quickly located. He had dropped Wachsman off around 5 p.m. the previous day. The next day, a demand was made by a Palestinian group that Israel release Palestinian prisoners, or else. The demand, in blunt language, was addressed to the “dog Rabin” — then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  

Ronen Bergman’s “By Any Means Necessary: Israel’s Covert War for its POWs and MIAs” tells the Wachsman story in great detail. It began much like the kidnapping of three young Israelis this week, and ended in heartbreak. The military was successful in locating the place where Wachsman was being held. It was less successful in getting him released — both Wachsman and an IDF special unit officer, Nir Poraz, were killed. No Palestinian prisoner was released. No demand was met. 

Three groups of IDF soldiers participated in the break-in to the house where Wachsman was being held. Poraz was heading one of them, his friend, Yair Lotan, a second force, and the third force commander was Nitzan Alon — now an IDF general and commander of Israel’s Central Command, the man in charge of the forces now searching for 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach and 16-year-olds Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar. 

[Related: Israelis send prayers and messages of hope — and share their anger]

Just three weeks ago, an Israeli cabinet meeting became tense over the issue that has suddenly became relevant in the last couple of days: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by the attorney general, decided to postpone a vote on legislation he had committed himself to passing. The law — which was approved by the government a couple of days later — would enable the courts to sentence murderers for life in a way that would prevent their future release for any reason. The authors of the new legislation, members of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party aim to prevent Israel from ever again releasing prisoners in exchange for peace talks, as it did last year. The legislation would also prevent the government from exchanging prisoners for abducted Israelis.

Writing for Slate two weeks ago, I explained that Israel’s “need of such legislation is testimony to the slippery slope that the releasing of terrorists can become.” The list of such releases is long, and the story of Wachsman is the exception, not the rule. Three years ago, Israel got the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit back from Hamas captivity in exchange for releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners to get three soldiers back. Israel, as I reminded Slate readers, “has repeatedly paid heavily for information, for bodies of dead soldiers, for a drug-dealing Israeli colonel kidnapped by Hezbollah. It got used to paying.” Bergman, in his book, claims that the “trauma of the failed attempt to release Wachsman remained a scar in Israel’s collective memory.” He even seems to believe that it contributed somewhat to Israel’s reluctance to initiate a similar military operation in an attempt to release Shalit — a more complicated case, as Shalit was being held in the Hamas-controlled territory of the Gaza Strip.

As I am writing this article, the fate of the abducted youngsters is not yet known. It is interesting to note, though, that in Israel the public seems to have toughened its position regarding possible deals with the kidnappers. The pendulum that tilted toward more accommodation following the Wachsman tragedy, might be edging back toward a less compromising stance following the heavy price paid in the Shalit deal.

On June 15, two Knesset members demanded to quickly adopt the recommendations of a committee to set an uncompromising criteria for exchange deals. In 2008, a committee headed by former High Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar was appointed by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, following a heavily criticized deal in which Israel let murderers go in exchange for body bags. The committee pushed to limit the price Israel pays in prisoner swaps, but Israeli governments were reluctant to fully adopt the recommendations, fearing that such a move would tie their hands in future situations that they could not foresee. 

Tying the hands of the government is exactly what the above-mentioned Knesset members now intend to do. One of them, Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi, was also behind the legislative initiative that enables the courts to sentence murderers to life without release, no matter the circumstances. The other, who publically called on the government to adopt the Shamgar recommendations and apply them to the current case of abduction, is Elazar Stern of the Hatnua Party. Curiously, Shaked is a member of a party that gets most of its votes from the community of settlers and settler supporters to which the abducted teens also belong. Stern, more of a political pariah, is also a member of the Zionist-religious community. So their call for restraint is clearly based on strong belief, and not rooted in lack of care for the families and the kidnapped teens.    

A lot of ink was spilled during the week on this question of care and carelessness. Following days of fruitless searching, and lacking in information of ability to assist, Israelis turned to self-reflection: Are we being too patriotic? Too cynical? Too hateful? Too polarized? Do we hate the settlers, do we love them, do we care enough about the three boys? A right-wing writer was furious to discover that the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade on June 13 had not been canceled because of the abduction. When, in synagogues, one nation of Israelis gathered to say prayers for the missing teens, he wrote, the “other nation ended its gay parade in a hangover.”  

So, Israelis wondered: Is this a good time to talk about the occupation, or the worst time to talk about it? Are the residents of the “state of Tel Aviv” disengaged from the sorrow of the rest of the country? Is it OK to keep broadcasting reality shows and the World Cup on TV? 

The answer to all of the above is — yes and no. The need for all of the above was the need of the powerless. There was nothing Israelis could do throughout these four days, except to pray, to go on with their daily lives, or to bicker (or all of the above). A vocal minority chose bickering. The media, which needs to fill hours and hours of broadcasts with something, turned to this minority to see some action.

The bickering comes from all sides:

From the left: It is about the settlers, about the irresponsible habit of hitchhiking, about the inevitability of violence because of the collapse of the peace talks.

From the right: It is about the settler-hating left, about how the left excuses terrorism, about the cruelty of Hamas — an ultimate proof that no peace process has any future.

From the center: It is about Israeli society’s lost ability to show solidarity, about the vile conversation, about the Facebook-made radicalization of Israeli culture.

Most of these complaints are overstated, or false.

In the “state of Tel Aviv,” where I live, I could hardly find neighbors who are unsympathetic or uncaring about the abducted boys. If there are such Tel Avivians, they are a small minority. Ignoring them would be the better policy. 

And I also refuse to be shocked by people who wonder if the culture of hitchhiking should not be seriously discussed. Wondering about hitchhiking doesn’t necessarily amount to a “blame the victim” mentality. In fact, the opposite is true: Those who agree that the enemy is heartless and cruel are also those who might want to be pragmatic about making life more complicated for kidnapers and murderers. Is the right to hitchhike so sacred that we should stand up for it at any cost? Telling teenage girls not to hitchhike because of the fear of sexual predators doesn’t amount to surrendering to predators, and telling teenage settlers not to hitchhike because of the fear of terrorist predators doesn’t amount to surrendering to terrorism. It’s a pragmatist stance that’s worth hearing out.

A very frustrating feature of the abduction is that Israelis have to deal with its meaninglessness. Its sheer, meaningless cruelty. The abduction is not going to prove to anyone that Palestinian terrorism is merciless and abhorrent — we know that already. We’ve seen buses blow up; we’ve seen families slaughtered in their sleep; we’ve seen heads smashed, youth murdered. It is also not going to teach us a lesson about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation — we know it’s complex, and we suspect it will remain complex for many years to come. And it is not going to convince Israel that the occupation isn’t viable — continuing the occupation is problematic, but Israel isn’t yet certain there is currently a better alternative.

That there is a debate within Israel about these questions is understandable and healthy. That such debates become more fierce and emotional when the country is searching for three lost boys is to be expected. And yes, it is also natural for many Israelis to miss the long-lost days of unity and harmony. Thirty years ago, it was easier to be unified. The country was much smaller, 3 million strong, not 8 million. The issues were less controversial; the occupation still young; the hope for a coming peace still alive. The press was less garish. The culture was more naïve.

And yet — and yet — if this horrid crime of abduction is a test for Israeli society, I see no reason for great worry. The debate, the anger, the nonstop bickering, the fiery exchanges on social media, are all a sign of strength. Israelis truly care; Israelis are highly engaged; Israelis feel the need to say something, to do something. Yes, at some moments this has an aftertaste of a superfluous quarrel — but is that not the case with almost all family feuds?

On June 17, the three families of the abducted youngsters gathered together for the first time. They, too, could do very little as the search continued. Their short TV and radio appearances were admirable. Content and subdued, they demanded little and asked mainly for other Israelis to keep praying for their sons. Other Israelis were not always as restrained in their response. As usual, the mix of emotion, drama and politics bequeath radical suggestions and objectionable comments.

As Israel was searching for the missing boys, it was also acting with greater means than usual against Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank. The new Palestinian government provided Hamas with an opportunity to better its position in this Fatah-dominated area, a process that Israel was following with great concern. Alas, up until the abduction, the calls from Israel for the international community to take action against the new government and refrain from working with it fell on deaf ears — not even the United States was willing to put its relations with the Abbas administration on hold because of the formation of the Hamas-backed government. The kidnapping gave some Israeli officials a hope that its concerns can be communicated more clearly now, and will provide more legitimacy in taking action against Hamas.

The latter conclusion has proved right, at least in the days following the abduction. Israel was operating in areas of the West Bank into which it doesn’t usually enter with massive forces, and the world seemed to accept the necessity of taking such action when the lives of three civilians are hanging in the balance. As for the other hope — that the world will suddenly rediscover its distaste for Hamas as a result of the kidnapping — the result was mixed. Soon after the abduction, Israelis started to notice and complain that this highly dramatic story failed to make huge headlines abroad. The world, they were forced to realize, is currently interested in the much bigger story of Iraq, and the much more positive story of the World Cup. The world is also not going to base its policies on the sporadic tragedies that befall Israelis (and Palestinians) from time to time.