Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman has a fascinating in-depth piece in today's New York Times Magazine exploring the notoriously lopsided Gilad Shalit/terrorist trade, suggesting that the painful questions raised by the deal aren't going away any time soon.
Among the more interesting tidbits are the behind-the-scenes look at Yitzchak Rabin's willingness to explore such a trade for the 83 Israeli Entebbe hostages in 1976 and his fear that Operation Thunderbolt only had a 50-50 chance of success.
The question of whether Israel could have feasibly launched a similarly daring rescue of Shalit, but perhaps lacked the political will to take a chance, is left unanswered, although Bergman appears convinced that Israel's celebrated intelligence apparatus — who tracked down Eichmann in Argentina and the Munich terrorists all over the world — never knew the location of Shalit's cell in an area an hour from Tel Aviv.
He also delves into the involvement by peace activist Gershon Baskin (also explored in The Jewish Week) that made the deal possible.
As I wrote last month, one of the most troubling aspects of the deal is that there is no good reason why, if Israel had to swallow such a bitter pill anyway, it couldn't have been swallowed years ago, substantially easing Gilad's suffering. But even more terrible is the likelihood that Israel has paid a terrible price for a much-needed moment of national joy, and one potentially short-lived.
Bergman, who has extremely good access to government and military sources, reports that during 2009 negotiations to win Shalit's release, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (internal security) chief Yuval Diskin produced data showing that 45 percent of terrorists in previous, equally lopsided prisoner exchanges returned to terrorist activity, including one man, Luay Saadi, who was later linked to the death of 30 Israelis and the wounding of hundreds more. (He won't cause further trouble: Israel took him out in 2005, Bergman said.)
I was under the impression that last month's deal was somewhat unique, but Bergman's research shows a long history of Shalit-like trades, which explains why Hamas drove such a hard bargain: In fact, the ratio has steadily grown in the enemies' favor steadily since 1970, when a one-to-one exchange took place for Shmuel Rosenwasser. Nine years later there were 79 P.L.O prisoners traded for one soldier. In 1985: 1,150 for three. In 1996, 45 live Lebanese prisoners for two IDF bodies. In 2004, Israel got off relatively cheap with "only" 400 prisoners in exchange for the bodies of three soldiers and one shady businessman captured in Dubai.
Yes, the exchanges show the great humanity of the Israelis in going to extremes to retreive both live and dead defenders and civilians. Bergman quotes a German negotiator, on the matter of retrieving bodies, saying "You Israelis have a very unusual attittude on this matter." The trades are also a reminder that elected Israeli leaders are subject to the will of the people, rational or not, to stay in power, unlike their adversaries.
But that pleasant reality doesn't obfuscate the frightening ones, that based on experience there is at least a 45 percent chance, God forbid, of more terrorism because of the trade. And that there was absolutely no price to be paid for Hamas' actions in not only kidnapping Shalit but refusing for five years to treat him with any kind of humanity by letting the International Red Cross check on his welfare.
For such inhumanity, there has only been abundant reward.
A similarly noteworthy read is this blog post by the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan in which he takes the Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin to task for retweeting an angry statement about what should happen to those Hamas captors of Shalit (it involves feeding them to the sharks). Thankfully, Sullivan concedes that Hamas is indeed "often despicable in their war crimes."
Understate much? Kind of like saying Madoff often had trouble keeping the books straight. One wonders which of the war crimes Sullivan does not find despicable.
But Sullivan also has a grateful shout-out for the captors, whom he has decided "did not torture" Gilad, never mind that the full account of his captivity has yet to emerge. Even for argument's sake were we to accept that the terrorists didn't apply pain on a regular basis to Gilad, how would Mr. Sullivan classify being kept in a dark room with no contact with the outside world (including visits from the Red Cross) while your wounds are untreated and nutritional needs are unmet for five years. Most people would find that pretty torturous.
Sullivan's point is that "it is a mark of civilization that we do not descend to this kind of tribal, racist, fascistic bile" in wishing destruction rather than captivity on the Hamas captors, whom Rubin and blogger Rachel Abrams describe as animals. Perhaps he's right, but it's also a mark of civilization to heap scorn upon people who "often" — in his view — commit despicable crimes, such as hostage taking and suicide bombing.
The majority of our particular civilization, particularly its commander-in-chief, seemed to have no problem with the recent disposition of one such evildoer to exactly the kind of watery end to which Abrams and Rubin alluded.
Sullivan must have caught some considerable flak for this rumination, for later the same day he shows us the other side of the coin, that the Hamas folk, in addition to being often unkind in battle, may have some unkind religious beliefs vis a vis the Jews.