What Israeli Diplomacy Can Tell Us About the Bergdahl Trade

Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, on Israel’s prisoner swaps.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012. Oren said that sanctions on Iran came too late and have failed to slow down their nuclear program.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Clara Ritger
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama traded Taliban sus­pects for Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl, the White House ex­pec­ted a happy home­com­ing. In­stead it got a na­tion­al de­bate. The United States is not alone in con­front­ing the per­ils of pris­on­er swaps. Close ally Is­rael has for years made a series of ex­changes with the Palestini­ans that many have seen as dis­pro­por­tion­ate: The 2011 deal for sol­dier Gil­ad Shalit cost the Is­rael­is 1,027 of their pris­on­ers.

Former Is­raeli Am­bas­sad­or to the United States Mi­chael Oren spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al from Tel Aviv. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

Does the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to re­lease five pris­on­ers for Ber­g­dahl set a pre­ced­ent for fu­ture ne­go­ti­ations?

The Is­raeli ex­per­i­ence has been that it does. Is­rael, over the course of his­tory, has re­leased about 7,000 ter­ror­ist pris­on­ers for something like a total of 19 Is­rael­is.

Time re­por­ted that a Taliban com­mand­er said the deal cre­ates an in­cent­ive for them to hunt down and cap­ture more Amer­ic­an sol­diers. Was trad­ing Ber­g­dahl worth cre­at­ing this in­cent­ive?

We have a very sim­il­ar de­bate in this coun­try. What has pre­vailed over the years is that Is­rael has a cit­izen’s army. We send our kids out to de­fend the coun­try, and when they go out to de­fend the coun­try they have to know that if, God for­bid, they fall pris­on­er, their coun­try will do everything in its power to bring them home. So it be­comes part of the un­writ­ten con­tract between the state and its army. I listen to the state­ments made by spokespeople from the [Obama] ad­min­is­tra­tion, and they make very sim­il­ar ar­gu­ments.

What about the con­tract between the state and its people? The pris­on­ers re­leased are known to hurt cit­izens, and some have gone back to ter­ror­ist activ­ity.

There is no easy solu­tion here. There is al­ways a trade-off. Our sis­ter-in-law was killed in a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing here, and if those re­spons­ible for the ter­ror­ist bomb­ing were re­leased in an ex­change, it would be acutely pain­ful for my fam­ily.

So what’s the right call?

When I was am­bas­sad­or, we did a pris­on­er ex­change for one cor­por­al, Gil­ad Shalit, and we re­leased over a thou­sand ter­ror­ist pris­on­ers who were re­spons­ible for the deaths of hun­dreds of Is­rael­is. I think the Is­raeli so­ci­ety made a de­cision in the case of Gil­ad Shalit that he had to be brought home, even at the very, very high price.

Is there any­thing the U.S. can learn from the Is­raeli ex­per­i­ence?

We know from our ex­per­i­ence that a per­cent­age of these re­leased pris­on­ers will go back to en­ga­ging in ter­ror. There’s no guar­an­tee that they can’t. We have to ap­proach that with open eyes. You keep up your guard and try to mon­it­or the move­ments to the best of your cap­ab­il­it­ies. That’s been the Is­raeli ex­per­i­ence, and we have re­arres­ted some of them.

In Is­rael, fam­il­ies have been pub­licly cam­paign­ing to get their chil­dren back. That’s not something the U.S. gov­ern­ment faced be­fore Bowe Ber­g­dahl’s re­lease. How did that pub­lic pres­sure shape the deals in Is­rael?

The dy­nam­ics are very dif­fer­ent. I don’t know how many Amer­ic­ans knew the name Bowe Ber­g­dahl be­fore last week. But every Is­raeli — every Is­raeli — knew the name Gil­ad Shalit. His name was on every bill­board, kiosk, tele­phone pole. His par­ents had a vi­gil out­side the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice that was very well at­ten­ded. There were marches for his re­lease. There were bal­loon fest­ivals ded­ic­ated to him. He was an hon­or­ary cit­izen of New Or­leans, Bal­timore, and Pitt­s­burgh. He was al­ways re­ferred to as “our Gil­ad Shalit.” When I went to lunch once with his fath­er, we lit­er­ally couldn’t have a con­ver­sa­tion be­cause people no­ti­cing us from out­side would come in to hug him. The own­er of the res­taur­ant kept pil­ing food on the table, and he wouldn’t ac­cept any pay­ment. That’s very dif­fer­ent than the Amer­ic­an aware­ness of Bowe Ber­g­dahl. And I don’t think the cir­cum­stances of his cap­ture is very per­tin­ent. It’s just the way the so­ci­ety relates to their sol­diers.

What about get­ting a pris­on­er back without a trade?

In 1976, Is­raeli com­mandos went all the way to Uganda to re­lease [more than 100] Is­raeli pris­on­ers suc­cess­fully. But the com­mand­er of that op­er­a­tion, Yonatan Net­an­yahu, the broth­er of [Prime Min­is­ter] Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu, was killed in that op­er­a­tion. So the op­er­a­tions are very com­plex, they are not without steep risks, and the ter­ror­ists them­selves have be­come ex­tremely soph­ist­ic­ated. They can keep pris­on­ers in areas that are very dif­fi­cult to reach. They can keep ex­plos­ives around them. It’s be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to mount spe­cial-forces op­er­a­tions to re­lease cap­tive sol­diers. Our en­emies un­der­stand the im­port­ance we at­tach to our fight­ing forces. And that gives them great­er lever­age.

Why is it worth it to bring back the sol­diers, even if it is just a body?

In 2012, of 5 mil­lion Is­rael­is, two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion came un­der rock­et fire. And in or­der to be able to not only sur­vive but thrive in that en­vir­on­ment, you have to have a strong sense of na­tion­al re­si­li­ence. The fact that this coun­try takes in­to con­sid­er­a­tion the per­son­al feel­ings of fam­il­ies, in­clud­ing the fam­il­ies of fallen sol­diers, 

and it will do everything to re­trieve the re­mains of their loved ones, helps us with­stand pres­sures that would prove pun­ish­ing for many oth­er coun­tries. That’s our bot­tom line.

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