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.