January 24, 2019

Free the hostage, but at what price?

The fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s cruel imprisonment by Hamas, without the Red Cross being allowed to visit him, sparked growing public pressure in Israel on the government to agree to a painful prisoner swap. As I watched the protest, my mind wandered back almost four decades.

It was July 1973, and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) Academy was ready for its traditional end-of-semester party. I contributed my part to the party’s program by impersonating an Italian air attaché and conducting a tour of the base, where I had been serving for five years, without anyone recognizing me. Later, the pictures were shown at the party and generated a lot of laughter. I was surprised, therefore, when after the party I was summoned to the IAF commander, the fearsome Gen. Benny Peled, who showed great interest in the fact that for a full day I walked around the academy without my identity being exposed.

He told me why he was interested. A month before, Syria had agreed to return three pilots who had been kept as POWs for three years. Why? Because in June 1972, in a brilliant operation, the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, had abducted senior Syrian officers who were reconnoitering the Syrian-Lebanese border. After a year of hard negotiations, the POW swap was concluded. But Peled wasn’t fully satisfied. He entertained the idea of sending to Damascus people who would impersonate Syrian prison officers, get the wardens who maltreated our pilots and settle the account with them.

I dared wonder if this was necessary, once we’d gotten our boys back. He gave me a stern look. “If we’re here to stay,” he reprimanded me, “then everybody around us should know that they can’t mess with Israel and get away with it.”

I wish we still had that kind of approach. Furthermore, I wish we had adopted in the first place the stance of the United States: No deals with extortionists. Period. When, in 1993, the American pilot Michael Durant was captured by Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s men in Mogadishu, Somalia (the “Black Hawk Down” incident), former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley warned Aidid that the city would be destroyed, including “men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything. … That would really be tragic for all of us, but that’s what will happen.”

Durant was released right away.

Israel is not a superpower like America, and, furthermore, bringing our boys home has always been almost a sacred value. Israeli soldiers are willing to do everything for their country, even risking their lives, because they know that if they become prisoners of war, Israel will go out of its way to bring them back home. I flew with the Israeli Air Force for 37 years, and I always felt confident about that. Many times I was assigned to secondary missions that had only one purpose — to rescue fellow pilots who flew the primary mission, if and when they got into trouble. If they did fall into enemy hands, however, every government in Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap.

Netanyahu’s government is no exception, and through the good services of a German mediator, it came as close as possible to striking a deal with Hamas. However, the government refuses to yield to Hamas’ demand to release some of the worst terrorists, those responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Israelis. This is not a question of punishing them; the precedent of the ill-fated Jibril deal in 1985, when 1,150 prisoners were released, showed that many of the killers, once freed, resumed their killings.

This is not a question of principle, then, but of price. Maybe borrowing a page from Jewish history will help us here. In Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). However, not at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages has already cautioned against it. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews.

The king arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him, and indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose. Yet the Maharam, from his cell, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such a move, by citing the Jewish religious law: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth.” He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

This is a terrible dilemma, with no clear-cut answers. It was Geula Cohen, who was a fighter in the pre-state, anti-British underground Lehi (the Stern Gang), who summed it up. “If my son Tzachi [Member of Knesset Tzachi Hanegbi] were taken POW,” she said in one of the controversies over prisoner exchanges, “I would have fought like a lioness that the government should pay any price for his release.’’

Then, with the same breath, she added: “And at the same time, I would have expected the government to firmly reject my demands.”

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996, he served as the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments.