Three weeks ago, an Israeli cabinet meeting got tense over an issue that has suddenly become relevant in the last couple of days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by the attorney general, decided to postpone a vote on legislation he committed himself to passing. The law - which was approved by the government a couple of days later - would enable the courts to sentence murderers for life in a way that would prevent their future release for whatever reason. The authors of the new legislation, members of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, aim to prevent Israel from ever releasing prisoners in exchange for peace talks, as it did last year. The legislation would also prevent the government from exchanging prisoners for abducted Israelis.
Writing an article for Slate two weeks ago, I explained that Israel's "need of such legislation is testimony to the slippery slope that the releasing of terrorists can become". The list of such releases is long, and the story of Wachsman is the exception, not the rule. Three years ago, Israel got the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit back from Hamas captivity in exchange for releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners to get three soldiers back. Israel, as I reminded Slate readers, "has repeatedly paid heavily for information, for bodies of dead soldiers, for a drug-dealing Israeli colonel kidnapped by Hezbollah. It got used to paying".
As this article is being written, the fate of the abducted youngsters is not yet known. It is interesting to note, though, that in Israel the public seems to have toughened its position regarding possible deals with the kidnappers. The pendulum that tilted toward more accommodation in the last two decades might be edging back toward a less compromising stance following the heavy price paid in the Shalit deal.
On Sunday, two Knesset Members demanded to quickly adopt the recommendations of a committee and set an uncompromising set of criteria for exchange deals. The Shamgar committee was appointed by then Defense Minister Ehud Barak in 2008, following a heavily criticized deal in which Israel let murderers go in exchange for body bags, and was headed by former High Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar. The committee recommended to limit the price Israel pays in prisoner swaps, but Israeli governments were reluctant to fully adopt the recommendations, fearing that such a move would tie their hands in future situations that they can't foresee.
Tying the hands of the government is exactly what the above mentioned MK's intend to do. One of them, Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi was also behind the legislative initiative that enables the courts to sentence murderers in a way that prevents future release, no matter the circumstances. The other MK that publically called on the government to adopt the Shamgar recommendations and apply them to the current abduction case is Elazar Stern of Hatnua. Curiously, Shaked is a member of a party that gets most of its votes from the community of settlers and settler supporters to which the abducted teens also belong. Stern, more of a political pariah, is also a member of the Zionist-religious community. So their call for restraint is clearly one based on strong belief, and not one rooted in a lack of care for the families and the kidnapped teens.
Of course, it is easier to take a strong stance against a release when no deal is under discussion and no tough choices have to be made. If Israel has proved anything in recent years, it is that the public tends to be very soft when such deals are presented and the choice is clear: cave, or see the abducted boys killed. Back in 2009, when early rumors of a possible Shalit deal dominated the news, I wrote the following paragraph:
Strategic blunder? Yes: the net result [of a Shalit deal] will be a boost to Hamas’s public image in the eyes of its constituency, and more incentives to kidnap Israeli soldiers in the future. But Israel also has another strategic matter to consider: … Having the public united against the enemy is a serious factor, and the exchange of terrorists for the release of Shalit and of future kidnapped is the price it seems willing to pay [for keeping the unity]. That is, until an Israeli leader is convincing enough to reeducate the Israeli public and turn the tide of opinion against such costly deals.
We all pray that the current case will not provide Prime Minister Netanyahu with such a test of conviction.