Israel doesn’t owe this much to its POWs

The Schalit process is unsustainable.

For all the public support behind the Schalit deal (79%-14% in today’s Yediot Aharonot poll), for all the justifiable national pride over the large-hearted spirit Israel has shown, I think just about everybody understands that this is an unsustainable strategy for freeing captured soldiers. If and when the next Israeli soldier is captured, this country can’t go through another ordeal like the one that’s hopefully about to end, nor can it again pay a price and take risks like it’s doing now.

Yet this is what will happen if we accept the central argument of the Free Gilad campaign – that Israel owes it to its POWs to bring them back at effectively any cost, because this is the social contract between Israel and the young men and women it puts in harm’s way for the nation’s defense. Moreover, according to this argument, if Israel doesn’t meet this obligation to any and all of its soldiers, such as Gilad Schalit, its young people will conclude that the country has abandoned them and they’ll lose the morale to defend it.

This has always struck me as complete  nonsense. Israel didn’t owe it to Gilad Schalit to release hundreds of killers, to risk the lives of untold innocent people and to basically invite further kidnappings, all to end his captivity, as nightmarish as it’s no doubt been. Israel certainly owed Schalit a great deal, but the price it paid more than fulfilled that obligation. For Schalit and his family, Israel went way above and beyond the call of duty.

As for IDF morale, I really don’t think any soldier would feel comfortable demanding that Israeli society as a whole endanger itself on his account. I sure as hell don’t think any soldier would be comfortable demanding that hundreds of killers of Israelis be released on his account – not as long as the war between Israel and these killers is still going on. Just the opposite – a soldier lays his life on the line for his countrymen at large; if he insists that his countrymen at large lay their lives on the line for him, he’s not serving his country, he’s making his country serve him. Gilad Schalit never asked this of Israel, but his family and supporters have asked it on his behalf, which is completely understandable, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair. This is not the social contract between Israel and its young people at all; the social contract, rather, is the “people’s army,” the principle that nobody’s blood is more valuable than anybody else’s, that every Israeli has to serve, to sacrifice. Not that this contract is honored as it should be, of course, but that’s the deal, that’s what every IDF soldier has a right to expect from this society – not a 1,000-to-1 prisoner exchange, definitely not with this line-up of prisoners.

I’m in favor of the Shalit deal because we came this far, so it’s unthinkable now to let him get lost forever like Ron Arad was, and with what’s happening in Egypt and Syria and maybe Turkey as well, that could happen; it’s insane to take that risk after five years of negotiations. But if we had to do it over again, I’d prefer that we didn’t negotiate for Shalit’s release at all, because the inevitable result was that either we would end up paying this ridiculous price, taking this staggering risk and plainly inviting more kidnappings, or we wouldn’t pay it and Schalit would end up like Ron Arad anyway.

If and when another Israeli soldier is kidnapped, I think Israeli society has to recognize that so long as we are at war with the POW’s captors, the lesser evil is to leave him in captivity, even indefinitely, than to repeat indefinitely the Schalit process.