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.