Trade or No Trade

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 10-Jul-08 | Author: Barry Rubin| Source: GLORIA Center

Lebanese residents decorates streets with posters of Samir Qantar, who is set to be released as part of a prisoner exchange with Israel, at Sidon in southern Lebanon July 3, 2008.

The Israeli prisoner exchange with Hizballah is a psychological victory for both sides. Nevertheless, I don't like the decision, I understand both ends of the debate over it, and my job is to analyze them. So rather than make some simple conclusion, I want to think out loud with you about all the factors involved.

For Israelis, the prime consideration--something a world which so often demonizes them fails to understand--is to feel that they have acted in a proper humane manner. Everyone can put themselves in the place of the two families who want their son's bodies to come home rather than to be in the hands of their murderers.

Of course, Hizballah draws confidence from this deal, yet so do most Israelis who feel confident enough to throw back some captured terrorists. There's some pride of trading more for fewer, as if the other side admits its low concern for its own people, a concept central to its general indifference to their lives and well-being.

At the same time, the other side's behavior shows what kind of people they are and want to be. Samir Kuntar is in no way a hero. He murdered a father and killed his four-year-old daughter, and the mother accidentally smothered her baby trying to hide from him, as well as two policemen.

Yet this is the criminal made a hero in Lebanon and among Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders. Even the anti-Hizballah Druze party in Lebanon (Kuntar is a Druze) welcomed him home as a great man.

No one in the Arabic-speaking world will say a single negative word about Kuntar's deed or his being made a hero, despite a small liberal minority's disgust.

Suddenly, memory transports me to a balcony in Beirut. The year is 1974 and I am looking out over the city next to my professor, the late Hisham Sharabi. With his sad face and sadder voice, Sharabi--a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause --told me that the terrorism used against Israel was shameful and some day Arabs should and would speak out against it.

He himself never did so in the 30 years remaining to him. I don't doubt his sincerity, only his priorities and the system imprisoning his spirit though he lived physically outside of it.

But what about those who are free, both inside and outside? Will Western media and intellectuals understand not just that "terrorism is bad" as such but comprehend a massive cultural-political system that dare not break from it in a meaningful way, and draw appropriate conclusions?

On the contrary, they--many don't but too many do--often extol, sympathize, or apologize for it. I'm reading the great Shai Agnon's novel Shira, set in the 1930s. A Hebrew University professor who fled Germany has an article accepted by a European journal. Despite intense anti-Semitism, often supported by European scholars, Agnon concludes, "Scholarship has its own dominion, which villainous hands fail to rock." Alas, how hollowly that rings today, Even if the prisoner exchange is understandable it is at best a terrible dilemma. Yet the New York Times sees it as a role model for diplomacy. Its June 30 editorial explains:

"Few countries can afford the luxury of limiting their diplomacy to friendly countries and peace-loving parties. National security often requires negotiating with dangerous enemies. Fortunately, Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is now displaying a clearer grasp of such realities than President Bush has mustered."

In other words, if terrorists attack you it's a good thing to release murderers in a deal, not just to soothe the pain of families but as a centerpiece of national strategy. It is such a superb notion it proves the United States and other countries should negotiate with Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas over their political demands. Presumably, this entails big concessions and letting radical forces escape sanctions and isolation.

This is bizarre logic. It does spring from Israel violating its own guidelines, not for the first time, on negotiating with terrorists, but is an extraordinary, dangerous extrapolation from what is somewhere between a necessary tragedy and a mistake.

What is unforgivable in the deal itself was to include Palestinian prisoners. This was certainly unnecessary--would Hizballah reject getting its own men back?--and signals Palestinians that Hizballah (and hence Iran and Syria) are their true guardians.

As a Hizballah statement put it, "Our prisoners are freed not by words and not by diplomacy or tears and kisses...." In other words, support Hamas, not the PA; back terrorist groups, not Arab relative moderates; follow Iran, not Egypt.

A PA official told Ynet: "Everyone today knows that Israel only understands force. Prisoners, we see again, can only be freed by pressuring Israel and not through negotiations." Typically, the official ignores the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who have been freed due to past talks, only to be replaced by new ones as terrorism continued. One more example of how concessions bring neither sympathy nor moderation.

Hizballah, of course, will now move to the next item on its list, a small area of Syria which it claims is Lebanese occupied territory. Hizballah, and Hamas, probably even Fatah) will try to take more Israeli hostages and continue the cycle. Yet while it seems obvious to say that such an exchange encourages them to do so, the truth is that they would act this way any way.

So was the prisoner exchange the wrong thing to do? On one hand, there is an element of pride knowing government is responsive to individual citizens' demands, but on the other hand there is a strategic cost to be paid for such a policy.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.

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