The prisoner exchange deal that Israel struck with Hamas last week does not make sense in terms of the country's foreign and defense policy goals. A country that has been a victim of terrorism for decades -- and that maintains that nations should never negotiate with terrorist organizations -- has done exactly that, exchanging 1,027 convicted terrorists (550 of whom were directly involved in multiple murders) for one soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Although the government initially considered military action to recover Shalit, who was abducted on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip in 2006, it was never a feasible option. Gaza's dense and hostile population would have made any rescue mission messy and dangerous. Moreover, Israeli intelligence had never determined his precise whereabouts. Over time -- and under immense public pressure -- the Israeli government began to entertain the notion of a political deal, the basic contours of which were drawn as early as 2007. (Israel would free roughly 550 Hamas prisoners, Hamas would free Shalit, and then Israel would free another 450.) At the time -- and when it resurfaced in 2009 -- the administration of then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert rejected the deal because the price was too high. Yet two and a half years later, both parties agreed to strikingly similar terms.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that he accepted the deal now for two reasons. First, he argues that he inherited the basic outlines of the swap from his predecessor, Olmert, and could not change them, certainly not with public opinion so strongly in favor of bringing Shalit home. And according to Netanyahu, regional developments made the agreement a now-or-never decision. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which hosts Hamas' political arm, is failing, and Hamas has been trying to find new accommodations; its options include post-Mubarak Egypt and Iran. Israel feared that Shalit could be transferred to Iran, which would have sealed his fate.

But there are other reasons that Netanyahu acted now. In 2009 and 2010, when Israel also seriously considered striking a deal, several powerful figures in government opposed it. Meir Dagan, who was then the head of the Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, then the head of the General Security Service, argued that the terms of the deal patently rewarded terrorism and abductions, emboldened Hamas by giving it a clear advantage over the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian Authority, and projected Israeli weakness. The Netanyahu government could not form a consensus to override their objections so the deal died. By this fall, however, both men had been replaced by officials more supportive of a swap -- Dagan by Tamir Pardo and Diskin by Yoram Cohen. Their support provided the administration the legitimacy among the security organs that it coveted.

Moreover, although the exchange deal runs contrary to Israel's stated counterterrorism policies, it should not have been surprising. At its roots, it was the product of a uniquely Israeli clash of two irreconcilable sets of values.

The first is the belief in military camaraderie and solidarity, and particularly the Israel Defense Forces tenet of "no soldier left behind." This is complemented by the ancient Jewish tradition of the redemption of prisoners, which has led to a general feeling that saving one live soldier is worth any price. This is typically Israeli; the country as a mother, making decisions based on parental instinct rather than cold cost-benefit calculations. This is the sentiment behind years of deliberations and indirect negotiations and a massive public campaign to bring Shalit home, no matter the cost.

The second set of values central to Israel's identity have to do with political realism, hardened by a lifetime of experience in the Middle East. These are the values that inform Israel's stated (but rarely followed) policy of not negotiating with terrorists. A country in Israel's geopolitical position must at all times exude confidence and strength. Any appearance of vacillation or equivocation could be interpreted as strategic impotence.

For years, the first value won out. In 1983, the Yitzhak Shamir government freed 66 terrorists and 4,500 detainees captured during the 1982 war in Lebanon in return for six soldiers. In 1985, as part of the Gibril deal, the Shimon Peres government released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for eight Israeli soldiers. The 2004 Tannenbaum deal saw the Ariel Sharon government release 436 detainees in exchange for one Israeli reserve officer who was kidnapped by Hezbollah after being lured into a business deal. And in 2008, Israel exchanged scores of Lebanese and Palestinian detainees and prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured during a 2006 Hezbollah ambush on the Israeli-Lebanon border and who died shortly thereafter.

Then the pendulum swung in the other direction. The two most recent Israeli governments -- those of Ehud Olmert and initially Netanyahu -- favored the second value. They insisted on conducting no negotiations with terrorist organizations whose ostensible policy is the destruction of Israel. But Netanyahu gradually succumbed to the public and media campaign to conclude a deal with Hamas. He also came to understand that rescuing Shalit through a military operation was impossible. This was not so much a shift of policy, which remained rhetorically tough, but a recognition of the importance of Israel's first set of values.

In comparison to previous prisoner exchanges, the 1,027 prisoners freed for Shalit is asymmetrical but not unusually unbalanced. Even so, Netanyahu would have been wise to remember Dagan and Diskin's original objections. With no renewed peace process in sight, Israel has effectively sent the Palestinians a message that diplomacy and the political processes the Palestinian Authority  advocates are futile but that terrorism and kidnapping pay. Now, as Abbas continues to busy himself with diplomatic maneuvers at the UN (which have so far yielded no tangible achievements), Hamas will be able to consolidate its power base in Gaza and its reputation in the West Bank -- this at a time when Iran's isolation and Syria's fragility should have weakened the group.

For their part, Israelis generally recognize the contradiction in their values; "I'm happy that Shalit is coming back, but I oppose the deal" is a constant and understandable refrain. And to be sure, Israel can withstand the release of the prisoners and terrorists it frees today. But this deal might be a bridge too far. The country has shattered whatever pretense it had to a coherent counterterrorism policy and whatever ability it had to deter terrorism. In other words, a bit of cognitive dissonance is fine for Israeli individuals, but not for a government. For now, the Netanyahu administration has chosen to be happy that Shalit is coming home, but it may come to regret that it was not more wary of the deal that brought him back.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ALON PINKAS is an Israeli diplomat, who most recently served as Consul General of Israel in the United States.
  • More By Alon Pinkas