Israelis Debate the Shalit Exchange

Majority public opinion in Israel continues to support the recent deal in which the Israeli government traded over 1000 terrorist prisoners for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, which I criticized here. But as this interesting CNN article explains, there is growing dissent:

While the deal to free Shalit was backed by a commanding Cabinet majority of 26-3 and enjoys wide support from the Israeli public, there is growing debate about the price Israel is willing to pay in order to free a single soldier.

Families of victims of terror, as well as some members of the Israeli government, have expressed fierce opposition to the deal. One minister who voted against the agreement called it “a great victory for terrorism,” and there are fears that the release of convicted murderers will lead to further attacks on Israeli civilians — a fear that, critics say, is borne out by statistics.

According to Israeli association of terror victims Almagor, 180 Israelis have lost their lives to terrorists freed in previous deals since 2000….

If the figure of 180 Israelis killed by exchanged terrorists is even remotely accurate, it greatly outweighs the number of Israeli hostages freed in such deals (16 according to this Slate article). And that number does not include the additional hostages taken by terrorists as a result of the success of previous efforts at hostage-taking. It also does not include Israelis killed by terrorists freed in deals prior to 2000, while the total of 16 Israelis exchanged includes all deals going back three decades.

Ironically, as the CNN piece points out, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who signed off on the current deal, understands the perversity of these kinds of arrangements perfectly well. He was a prominent critic of similar (though somewhat less lopsided) exchanges that the Israeli government agreed to in the 1980s:

Three years after the [1985] Jibril Deal, Netanyahu explained his philosophy about negotiating with terrorists to CNN’s Larry King. “On one case I did not swallow it. When my government did something that I simply could not live with, which was the release of jailed terrorists for three of our POWs. We wanted to get our POWs back, and the government, in my judgment, made a big mistake and traded terrorists. And here I was confronted with a situation that everything I believe in, in fact agitated for and tried to use an example of Israel for, to encourage other countries, especially the United States, to adopt a tough no-concessions policy against terrorists.”

In his 1995 book “A Place in the Sun” Netanyahu called the Jibril Deal “a fatal blow to Israel’s efforts to form an international front against terrorism” and warned of the hazardous consequences of such moves. “The release of a thousand terrorists…will inevitably lead to a terrible escalation of violence, because these terrorists will be accepted as heroes,” Netanyahu wrote.

Netanyahu’s critique of the 1985 deal applies with even greater force to his own more lopsided agreement.

UPDATE: Various commenters on this and my previous post on the same subject claim that the Israeli government had to do this in order to send its citizens a “message” about how much it valued their lives and was willing to pay a high price to save them. But if these deals lead to the deaths of far more innocent Israelis than they save, the real message sent will be exactly the opposite: that the government is willing to make a large net sacrifice of innocent life in order to gain short term public relations benefits or a short-term boost in national morale. It’s possible, of course, that Israeli public opinion is myopic enough that they will think that the government is saving life despite the fact that it is actually sacrificing a much larger enough of innocent lives. If so, there could be a more permanent and substantial boost in national morale. Even then, it will probably fade as public attention shifts to other issues. In any event, it’s not worth the sacrifice of numerous innocents and the creation of perverse incentives for terrorist groups.

UPDATE #2: Tyler Cowen responds to this post here:

Ilya is possibly underrating the power of signaling models. It is precisely the fact that that Israeli government will trade for this single life, even apart from whether it is instrumentally rational, that sends the relevant signal. The less “rational” the act, the more potent the signal of concern, and in this case the possible irrationality is stochastic, not certain…..

One can also read the Israeli government as signaling (correctly or not) that it has the power to prevent or at least limit future kidnappings. It is an expression of strength, or at least a belief in strength, and citizens seem to like that signal from their leaders.

I am not at all persuaded by Tyler’s argument. If Israel meant to signal that they can prevent future kidnappings, they have clearly failed. Hamas leaders have repeatedly stated that this exchange encourages them to take more hostages in the future. As soon as they do so, any Israelis who may have been deluded by this signal of “strength” will be disabused of the notion that strength is what is being signaled here.

If the goal is to show that Israel is willing to save its citizens even when it’s not “rational” to do so, then the message is self-defeating. In this case, it’s irrational because israel is actually sacrificing many more innocents than it will save. To the extent that the Israeli public understands that, they will be demoralized rather than encouraged. If they don’t understand it, they won’t understand that the action isn’t “rational” and thus won’t get the message that Tyler thinks the Israel government is trying to convey.