Principle vs. Love and Devotion in Israel’s Prisoner Exchange

Haim Watzman

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.

6 thoughts on “Principle vs. Love and Devotion in Israel’s Prisoner Exchange”

  1. I have some questions:

    (1) If the gov’t knew the men were dead why did they not declare them as such?

    (2) If the gov’t wasn’t sure, why didn’ they say to HIZBULLAH “we are not going to talk about any exchanges until we have proof they are alive?

    (3) Why did Olmert decide to go to war, have 160+ die, claiming that he was going “to bring the boys back” and then, in the end, capitulate totally, something he could have done right at the start and saved the lives of the 160+ in addition to millions of dollars in damage?

    (4) If Olmert says he had to give in to public pressure and make this this craven capitulation to HIZBULLAH, since “public pressure” works so effectively on him, then why didn’t he resign last year when the Winograd Report blasting his incompetance came out and he dropped into single digits of popularity where he has more or less remained ever since? If he was so concerned about public opinion, he would have resigned long ago.

    It seems to me that the gov’t intended to capilatute long ago (after all Olmert, like Nasrallah wants to show “achievements”), and it quietly ENCOURAGED the public pressure the families and their supporters engaged in so that Olmert could claim he was only doing what “the people” want.

  2. Y there are many of my fellow GIs laying in unmarked graves ,most shot rather than taken prisoner. There are those who fly a MIA flag rather than face the obvious. Israel has weakened it’s hand by not insisting on pre-conditions of exchange which would not include a “monster” who would crush the skull of a 4 year and shoot her father in front of the family. I don’t care that he was just 16. I don’t believe in the death penalty but I would give this guy life in solitary 24/7 ,1 hour out a day. Israel needs to take stock of what their doing here .They have just given the fanatics license to act with impunity and they certainly will. I believe in peace but not at any price.This exchange is disgrace and does nothing to remember the sacrifice these two reservists.

  3. Haim, I would’ve thought that one lesson from the War on Lebanon, take two (if that still wasn’t clear from take one), was that Hizbullah understands perfectly well how to stand together and withstand their enemies.

    Y. Ben-David, if you’re saying the Lebanon war was a foolish and immoral adventure, we have no argument over that. However it was more like around 1200 dead, not 160, unless you regard the Lebanese victims as unworthy of being counted.

  4. I’ve done some thinking on this issue. Clearly it seems that Israel lost on this exchange, seeing that she only gained two cadavers and traded over 100 cadavers with 5 living human beings (one of which being the infamous Samir Qantar) to her neighbor up north.

    But then I saw the BBC coverage of it, which includes some photos. Here I saw images of Israeli solidarity and the willingness to do what ever it takes to bring back “two of their boys” back. You see pain and loss of the Regev and Goldwasser families, and Israeli society in general.

    On the next photo you see a festival in Lebanon for Samir Qantar. Nasrallah makes a rare public appearence in a stadium. It’s enough to make one sick to their stomach.

    Good international press for Israel, not-so-great international press for Hizbullah. Good global PR is not something Israel has an abundance of. So maybe this wasn’t such a dumb move after all?

  5. Yesterday Ha’aretz ran (only in the Hebrew edition) a short item headlined “Soldiers Supported the Prisoner Exchange With a Full Heart” ( The article quotes unnamed senior IDF commanders who say that the deal was important for promoting morale among the combat troops, who want to know that if they are captured all will be done to release them. In the past I’ve pointed out the importance and legitimacy of military action–including the initial stage of the Second Lebanon War two years ago–for the purpose of keeping up morale in times of crisis. Demoralized soldiers will not fight and will not take risks. Sometimes keeping up morale requires offensive measures, and sometimes it requires cutting a deal with our enemies.

  6. I am not from either sides, but an outsider.
    To me this exchange just show how much is the value of an Israeli against a Lezbo…Lezbo alive is worth less than a dead Israeli…this put a lots of honors on Israeli soldiers…

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