A Prisoners Dilemma and One Precious Life

The Republican Party’s presidential candidates may not agree on everything, but they seem unanimous about one thing: if they were prime minister of Israel, they would not have swapped more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the return of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who had been held captive by Hamas for five years before his return last week.

That’s curious, to say the least. You almost have to wonder if the candidates appreciate just how much Israel values the lives of its citizens, especially its citizen-soldiers. The Republicans almost seem to think that the deal was a sign of weakness on Israel’s part. “You can’t negotiate with terrorists, period,” said Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.

No nation knows more about the effects of terrorism than Israel. But Jerusalem’s decision to trade 1,000 prisoners for a single solder was hardly a sign of weakness. It was, in fact, born of strength, solidarity and, ultimately, decency.

True, some of the Palestinians freed from prison in Israel were and remain death-worshipping fanatics who may well seize another opportunity to kill or injure Jews. Israeli families torn apart by the actions of some of these prisoners certainly were upset about the exchange, about seeing killers allowed to go free. Worse, they were accorded hero’s welcomes once they were beyond Israel’s borders.

Even still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the right decision, for the right reason. Israel cannot and should not sleep while one of its own remains in the hands of its enemies. We do not know and may never know how Mr. Shalit was treated by his captors. But the gruesome record of some Islamic terrorists would suggest that he has been liberated from a hell on earth.

And that is precisely what Mr. Netanyahu’s government achieved: liberation of a soldier, a fellow citizen, a Jew. Liberation was not without cost. But it was a cost well worth paying.

It certainly is possible that no U.S. politician, even the most well-meaning, can appreciate the value that Israelis traditionally place on the lives of their fellow citizens. Israel has made other, seemingly one-sided deals before to win the freedom of another Israeli. And if others fall into hostile hands, Israeli will make the same deal.

These deals don’t weaken Israel. They make Israel stronger, for they reaffirm the embattled nation’s commitment to basic human values. Those who wish to understand the Middle East should be paying close attention.