Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gilad Shalit: All-for-One or One-for-All?

Gilad Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by the Hamas organization in June 2006. He was released after 5+ years in a prisoner exchange deal that took place in October 2011.  The deal involved swapping 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier. The return of Gilad was the culmination of a public campaign and his return was celebrated by all Israelis. The prisoners exchange was hailed as a moral victory for Israel; however the support for deal was vocal, but not unanimous. Few expressed (quietly) their concern over the deal ramifications to Israel’s security. So did Israel make the right choice?

The main slogan of the "Free Gilad Shalit" campaign
Almost against his will, Gilad Shalit turned into a celebrity upon his return. The Israeli media occasionally reports “Gilad sightings”, such as: attending a Shlomo Artzi concert (popular Israeli singer), visiting the set of Homeland (popular TV series), leading a ‘Cycling for Peace’ outing, and receiving an honorary citizenship of Rome. The question whether Gilad is indeed a “hero” and should be treated as such, is a separate debate. I prefer to focus on the decision process, since this wasn’t the first or the last “national security” decision this country has to make.

The decision to accept the terms offered by the Hamas, an organization committed to Israel’s destruction, was not an easy one. It was against the core principle of “not caving-in to terrorists” held by many, including Israel Prime Minister - Benjamin Netanyahu. Plus the public pressure exerted by the “Free Gilad Shalit” campaign launched by the Shalit family and its supporters didn’t make the decision any easier.

The debate around Gilad Shalit pitted two conflicting views:
  • The ‘One-for-All’ view called for rejecting the terms of the deal, and continuing to press for terms that will minimize the risk of future Israeli terror casualties. The often used slogan was “release Gilad, but not at any price”.
  • The ‘All-for-One’ view called for accepting the price and the risk of future terror casualties so that a live captive soldier could be saved. The often used slogan was “Gilad is still alive”, implying that time is running out.

The underlying question was whether the well-being of an individual should be sacrificed in favor of national security interest.

The Shalit campaign succeeded in promoting the personal sentiment involved in the decision and shifted it from being solely a ‘national security’ question. The campaign managed to position Gilad as “everybody’s son”. For many Israelis the question was no longer “what’s in Israel best interest?” but rather “what if this was your son?”

In a democracy, personal and national interests should hopefully be aligned, but that’s not always the case. For example, a nation may be forced to wage a war in order to protect its national interests, yet a single individual has little interest in risking his/her own life. Most people agree in principle with the need to sacrifice personal interests for the society to gain as a whole, but the ultimate test comes when it is you who need to make the personal sacrifice.

Proponents of the ‘All-for-One’ view claimed that I) Freeing Gilad is the moral thing to do. II) As a nation we are committed to do everything we can to return our soldiers home. III) Undermining soldiers’ belief in the commitment to rescue them will impact their resolve in battle. IV) Israeli security forces can contain the risk arising from the release of terrorists.

Proponents of the ‘One-for-All’ view claimed that I) released terrorists will launch attacks causing future casualties. II) caving-in will increase motivation to kidnap additional soldiers III) releasing convicted murderers is immoral IV) terrorist fear of punishment and therefore Israel deterrence will be eroded.

It seemed that the decision made by the Israeli government was greatly influenced by the public sentiment voiced by Gilad’s supporters.  Public opposition to the deal was viewed as “lacking empathy” and therefore “politically incorrect”. The only opposing voices that were deemed “legitimate” were those of terror-victims’ families, who felt that releasing killers robs justice from their (deceased) loved ones. But how do you weigh these emotions against each other?  

The public had to choose between the loss of a soldier who became “everybody’s son”, and the potential risk of future victims - the visible agony of Gilad and his family compared with the faceless agony of “future victims”. But what is the potential risk of ”future victims”? If we assume that of the 1000+ released prisoners “just” a couple of hundred are hard core terrorists, and that 10% of them will engage in terror acts again, of which 10% will “succeed” in causing one or more casualties - that amounts to 2 successful terrorist attacks with one or more casualties. Sure, this is “hypothetical”, but the assumptions are quite reasonable.

Given the potential risk above, one would think that the debate would have evaluated the cost/benefit to the nation as a whole. But that of course assumes that people are rational beings, which recent research is showing we’re not… Suppose the government proposed the following “equivalent deal” from a risk perspective: in exchange for Gilad’s release, every Israeli will receive a lottery number. The two “winners” will be executed the day Gilad is returned to Israel. Sounds harsh I know, but it is a statistically equivalent deal… How many citizens would vote in favor of the ‘lottery deal’? None I bet. But wait you say, we don’t know for sure if terrorist acts will actually happen… Ah, the power of hope.

In theory, decisions like that should not be based on public opinion, which quickly shifts and is driven by emotions. These types of decisions should be made by elected officials who <supposedly> evaluate the risks vs. benefits to the nation as a whole. But this approach assumes that the public has complete confidence in its elected officials…  But that’s another question.

I don’t know what the “right decision” should have been. I didn’t have access to the information the Israeli government and its security services were previewed to. But I do have a nagging feeling that “individual interests” preceded “national interests” in this case. I fear there will be more than a few victims as a result of this exchange. I suspect that terrorist recruits are told that the worst that might happen to them is spending a few years in prison until the next prisoners exchange deal. I fear the next kidnapping of a soldier (or a civilian) is right around the corner.

So what would I do if Gilad was my son you may ask? Hopefully I would have the courage, wisdom and tenacity to do exactly what Gilad’s family did. And I am happy for them. But Gilad is not my son, nor is the Israeli government his parent. I just hope that national security decisions will be made with the interests of the whole nation in mind. Ah, the power of hope.

Disclosure: I started writing this blog entry a while ago. At first it seemed inappropriate to publish it before Gilad’s return. Then it seemed inappropriate to publish it shortly after his return. Then it seemed a bit outdated. But maybe it isn’t?


  1. "For many Israelis the question was no longer “what’s in Israel best interest?” but rather “what if this was your son?”"

    The question need not be abstract. What if it's your son or daughter who is kidnaped next year because bargaining for release is now on the table?

  2. It seems that you contemplation highlights a broader issue in terms of societies in the past vs. nowadays. One may consider the past to be in a sense more "glued" or "unified" around a central theme. Hence, Abram's consent to sacrifice his son (which earned him an extra H in his name; to signify human perhaps?) is one example. Today, modern humans, modern societies may be characterized by the forces that pull them apart: many voices, views, opinions...
    I would conclude this short comment by saying that the multiplicity of views indicates perhaps a major cultural change as well as perhaps an interim state of affairs whereby the past is no longer valid and the future is not yet seen. A difficult period and a fascinating one...