The Illogic of Asymmetrical Prisoner Exchanges

by Roger Alford

It makes no sense.  Israel has traded five brutal militants for the bodies of two dead soldiers and the assorted body parts of other Israeli soldiers.  I am in Israel now teaching with a Whittier/Pepperdine study abroad program and coverage of the prisoner exchange is ubiquitous.  I attended a special class session with our students of a presentation by Major Aharon Mor, an Israel Defense Force spokesman, to try to understand the logic.  But it fails me.  When asked why Israel would make this trade, Mor quoted his superiors as saying, "We have a responsibility for all of our soldiers, those who are alive and those who are dead."  But it is patently obvious that if Israel will exchange the likes of Samir Kuntar for the bodies of soldiers, then this plays directly into the hands of Israel’s enemies.  It creates little incentive for Hezbollah to keep other prisoners alive.  And if there is any incentive, it is to up the ante of any future exchange.  If you can get five militants for two bodies, how many can you get for a real live captured soldier?  That will be the question Israel will now face with demands for more prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, who is being held in Gaza.  Hamas is demanding "thousands of prisoners" in exchange for Shalit.   

In an editorial in the Jerusalem Post today, Herb Keinon writes that "no other country in the world would have made such a deal."  He argues that the exchange really is about the Holocaust and the the communal obligation of doing everything possible to protect a Jew in danger.  But in reality it only encourages Israel’s enemies to place Israeli soldier’s in greater danger.  This asymmetrical exchange emboldens Israel’s enemies and makes Israel appear to be a weak negotiator.  It just makes no sense.

3 Responses

  1. Many things in life make no sense. Given the millions of loved ones who went up in smoke in the Holocaust, I can really understand why it would be so important to have the remains of one’s child, sibling, or parent and be able to put them to rest. I give Israel a pass on this. As to emboldening their adversaries, I think that you do not understand the depth of the level of determination of the Jews of Israel to survive in Israel. This bazaar bargaining about prisoners is par for the course, but it does give an incentive to the folks at Hamas and Hezbollah to keep Israelis alive who are captured. As to Kuntar, I suspect there will be an operation in the near future where he will be a targeted killing. It seems pretty obvious.

  2. It doesn’t make sense…unless you think about the average Israeli soldier, who needs to be convinced that if he risks his life for his country, his country will do whatever it takes to get him back, dead or alive. Having spent time with many young Israeli soldiers, they are well aware that while their country’s policy may not make sense from a macro/policy perspective, it is necessary on an individual level. It’s true it may encourage groups like Hezbollah to kidnap soldiers, but that is, obviously, a cost Israel is willing to pay.

  3. One thing that could also be done would be to call on the Lebanese government to prosecute Kuntar.  The downside is we will get into an equivalency argument between things the Israelis are alleged to have done in Southern Lebanon and things that Hezbollah fighters have done in Northern Israel.  But, on the other hand, calling for his prosecution would be a way of signaling that the laws of war apply to both sides in this conflict and that we expect leaders on both sides to resist barbarity.

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