The release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years in Taliban captivity, in exchange for the U.S. release of five Taliban terrorists, led to inevitable comparisons with Israel’s release of 1,027 prisoners in exchange for the liberation of Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity. The Jewish Week spoke by telephone with Amos Guiora, professor of law at the University of Utah, and a former judge advocate general in the Israel Defense Forces.
Q: Were the Shalit and Bergdahl exchanges equally justified?
A: There is a contract between the state and the soldier, regardless of the circumstances that led to captivity. At the end of the day, the state’s obligation is to do everything within its power to ensure the safe return of the captured soldier.
Nevertheless, the run-up to the Shalit deal was completely different than the run-up to the Bergdahl deal. Most Americans never heard of Bergdahl or his opaque story. But even Jewish first-graders knew Shalit’s name and face. Shalit was depicted in the Israeli and Jewish media as a child, while Bergdahl seemed battle-worn, a dusty soldier. Soldiers are captured, become prisoners of war, but we say Shalit was kidnapped, like he was the Lindbergh baby.
That’s an important point. In his photos, Shalit looked so vulnerable, helpless. We all adopted him. We had ‘Free Gilad Shalit’ stickers on our car. We went to demonstrations for him. As for Bergdahl, other than his parents and small town, no one heard of him. In Israel, everybody knows everybody. And Shalit’s parents were on TV all the time, unlike the Bergdahls. The president could have done a much more effective job at “selling” this story, of explaining this to the public, giving a better sense of why this had to be done and the circumstances. I assume the president was caught off guard when Bergdahl’s father started speaking in Pashti [an Afghani language]. Right decision, poorly sold. That cost a lot in the court of public opinion. These things are complicated and the public has the right to know.
With Shalit, long before he was released, the public knew.
By the end, even Israelis who didn’t read the papers and never went online heard of Shalit. I was at a basketball game [in Israel] when word came that Shalit would be released and there was a huge standing ovation. There are legitimate arguments against releasing terrorists, but when you have a soldier in captivity, the tangible [of freeing the captive] will always win out over the intangible [of the potential for future terror].
You’ve said that prisoner exchanges are born of mutual interest, but in Israel the engine behind the Shalit deal was raw emotion, rather than military or political interests.
Go back to 1986 when [Israeli Lt. Col.] Ron Arad fell into Lebanese hands. It was a different era. When the government said it was doing everything to free him, Arad’s wife Tami probably believed them. [Arad, never found, is presumed dead.] Karnit Goldwasser [wife of Sgt. Ehud Goldwasser, captured in 2006] didn’t believe a word she was told by [then-Prime Minister] Olmert. Karnit was a force of nature, a young attractive woman, who did everything the opposite of Tami Arad [to keep the story alive]. Two years later, her husband’s body [albeit deceased], was returned. Karnit became a case study for how to maintain a high profile, not giving the prime minister a day’s rest. That’s what Gilad’s father, Noam Shalit did.
And yet the public image of Shalit and Bergdahl played a role, too: Shalit, the innocent; Bergdahl, less so.
[For Bergdahl’s parents] to have brought up Bergdahl would have forced questions on whether he was a deserter, and the six other soldiers who [Bergdahl’s platoon mates said] were killed searching for him. Those dead soldiers have families, too. And Bergdahl’s platoon mates had strong complaints about him.
But weren’t there reports, and his confession, about Shalit’s inappropriate behavior when captured? He didn’t go down fighting.
There was very muted criticism of his conduct and by silent consensus it is not discussed. He was asleep in his tank.
Not only didn’t he go down fighting, when he surrendered, two other [IDF] soldiers had been killed. We decided as a society, “zei gezunt” — let’s move on.