Wednesday 23 July 2008

A Fair Swap?

Much has been written about the recent prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel in which the bodies of the kidnapped soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were returned to Israel for burial. In exchange for the return of the remains of the Israeli soldiers, Israel released 5 prisoners and the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian militants to Hezbollah. One of the released prisoners, Samir Kuntar, was convicted of killing 4 Israelis in terror attacks in 1979.

On the face of it, the exchange seems rather one-sided. How could Israel agree to release so many bodies and live prisoners in exchange for the remains of two Israelis? The issues raised by this exchange were neatly captured in conversations that I held with my teenage sons in the lead-up to the exchange and, in particular, on the day of the exchange.

We had discussed details of the exchange package at some length prior to the swap taking place. All of its details were well publicised and widely reported in the local press. All details, that is, except the most critical one of all - whether the captured soldiers were dead or alive. Hezbollah succeeded in playing this trump card to maximum effect to extract value from the exchange. In the days leading up to the exchange, somehow the lack of balance in the exchange was much less of an issue as most of our thoughts were occupied by the hope that the boys would be returned home alive. Despite having been told by the government unequivocally that both boys had been killed in action at the time of their kidnapping, the whole country hoped and prayed along with the Regev and Goldwasser families that a miracle would transpire and we would receive life. Somehow, we could not accept that they had been killed without seeing their bodies.

So, I was a little surprised by the contents of the phone call that I received from my 16 year-old when he called me during the afternoon on the day of the prisoner exchange. Whilst most of us had watched the exchange take place and witnessed the return of two coffins live on TV that morning, he had missed all the drama whilst lying in after a late night out. It is, after all, the summer school holidays. "I don't like this deal at all," was the message I got from him. It seems that whilst there was the prospect of receiving life, the deal seemed worthwhile. In light of the realisation that we did not receive life, the seeming imbalance of the deal suddenly became more apparent. So began a conversation that lasted more than half an hour, and continued in my car as I made my way back from work.

"I cannot believe that we agreed to give them so much in exchange for two dead bodies," he continued.
"It depends how much you value and want the return of the two dead bodies," I answered. "It is a bit like going to a supermarket to buy an expensive grocery item. If you really want or need the item, you will pay the price. If not, you probably won't. Are you suggesting that Israel should not have made the exchange?"

"We are teaching them how to behave towards us," he answered. "If they know how much we we are prepared to pay to receive our citizens back, dead or alive, they will have more incentive to capture us." Valid point, but nothing new. This is exactly the reason why these soldiers and Gilad Shalit were captured in the first place. And, in a strange way, this message is sent with a certain amount of pride. Why should we be ashamed to say that we believe that two of our dead bodies are equal in value to 199 of theirs and 5 live people?

There was a short silence. "Well, I just think that we could have done the deal on better terms."

Ofer Dekel was chosen by the Israeli government as its chief negotiator. This was the best deal that Dekel could bring home, and the government had faith in that. There may be somebody else who could have brought a better deal, but we will never know.

By this time, I had already reached home and joined him in sitting at our kitchen table.

"Let's assume," I said, "that Dekel is the best man for the job. Let's also assume that this deal is the best one that Dekel can extract from his German intermediary. We are presented with this deal at the cabinet meeting and we are asked to vote. All those in favour, raise your hands." I raised my hand enthusiastically. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Slowly and reluctantly he raised his hand.

For me, it wasn't the fact the it was slow and reluctant. For me it was the fact that the hand was raised. This exactly reflects the Israeli view and the system of Jewish values. It is more important that the deal is done, rather than the terms on which it is done. In return for our sons, brothers, husbands and fathers being prepared to fight in defence of our country and sometimes lay down their lives in the process, our country owes it to their families to ensure that it will do whatever is required to bring them home. We need to be able to face the bereaved relatives and say that we have done everything in our power to bring their boys, our boys, home. We also need to be able to face the mothers who are sending their sons away to begin their national service. We need to be able to tell them that, if the unfortunate situation arises, the country will do whatever is required in looking after her son. In this respect, actions speak louder than words.

And so the deal was rightly done. Somewhat unbalanced, but who cares? What is more important by far is that it was done. The boys have been laid to rest with the respect and gratitude that they deserve. The families have an answer as to their fate, and a place to mourn their tragic loss.

Now is the time to trade for the release of Gilad Shalit from Hamas in Gaza - at any price and as soon as possible. Let's not forget Ron Arad, missing for over 20 years, as well as the other Israeli soldiers missing in action. We owe it to their families and to ourselves.

"Do you believe that we should trade prisoners for peace?" was the next question that was fired at me. That is the subject for an entirely separate discussion.

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