In principle, I oppose uneven prisoner exchanges, but that’s not why I wasn’t able to watch the television coverage of Wednesday’s exchange of Lebanese terrorists for dead Israeli soldiers. My wife had the television on but I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t have a way of dealing with my conflicting emotions and fears; my anger and frustration; my agony.
Neither did I have stomach for writing about it that day here, or for participating in the debate over the deal (see, for example, themiddle, Esther, and grandmufti over at Jewlicious, and so many others in the Israeli and Zionist papers and blogs).
When Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were dragged off by Hezbollah guerrillas two summers ago—at that time we had to presume they were still alive when taken prisoner—these two reservists could have been me or any of my friends. During my years of reserve duty, I conducted innumerable border patrols of this sort. I know how easy it is to fall into false security, to assume, on the last day before you head home, that all is quiet and nothing can happen. I identified completely with the anger and frustration of their fellow-reservists, who wanted to fight to get their friends back.
During the long captivity, I could sympathize with the soldiers’ families and friends. Today I am the father of a soldier, and if my son were in enemy hands, I’d do everything in my power to get him back.
On rational, military grounds, uneven exchanges are bad moves. They encourage the enemy to abduct more soldiers, to raise the ante each time. In the current exchange, we exchanged live men for dead ones. Our enemies now have less of an incentive to keep alive any Israeli prisoners they take in the future. That’s bad for reservists and soldiers patrolling the border and fighting in wars.
The Hezbollah festival this week sickened me. I’d have given a lot to prevent it.
But, despite my principles, if I’d had to make the decision about whether to go ahead with this exchange or hold out for better terms, I would have chosen the former.
Israel, for all its flaws, is an open society in which parents’ soldiers and friends can lobby the government and conduct a public campaign to get prisoners released. One could hardly expect Regev’s and Goldwasser’s loved ones to act in any other way. And our leaders are elected politicians who need, and crave, public approval. The cold calculations of a rational prisoner exchange policy must, in the context of an open, democratic society, give way to human concerns. Our government did not give in immediately—we bargained, and came up in the end with a better deal than Hezbollah had originally demanded. But even the final offer was one that demanded that we swallow a good measure of dishonor and bad precedents.
But which of us would want to live in a society where parents and friends had to place rational policy above love and devotion?
Authoritarians, fascists, and Communist absolutists have always derided democracies for being weak. In the end, however, open societies have proved their resilience and have prevailed. Our weaknesses turn out to be our strengths. For Israel to survive, parents need to continue to send their children to fight, and soldiers must be willing to do everything to protect their comrades. We traded live killers for dead soldiers, true, but we also received something that Hezbollah clearly does not understand—a reaffirmation of our willingness to stand together and withstand our enemies.