Dealing With the Devil

Israelis take great pride in their military prowess, aggressive style and impressive combat record. Such swagger supposedly defines Israel's deal-making style, too, especially when it comes to terrorists: Jerusalem doesn't negotiate, period. This bright-line approach is often lauded by the U.S. government, which similarly refuses to negotiate with terrorists, even when they kidnap U.S. soldiers.

Yet the truth about Israeli policy turns out to be more complicated. Last week, Jerusalem released a convicted Hizbullah spy in exchange for the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. German diplomats mediating the talks announced that this was just a prelude to another swap. Some leaders and experts have praised the move as a sign of a new Israeli pragmatism. But such trades—last week's was hardly the first—may actually hurt Israel more than they help.

The immediate worry, of course, is security. Todd Sandler, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, says that while the numbers are hard to track because attackers can change their names, "when hijackers were released, they performed those acts again and again until they were killed or captured." In one famous 1985 exchange, Jerusalem traded 1,150 Arab prisoners for three soldiers captured during the Lebanon occupation. Some of those fighters soon turned their guns against the Jewish state once more.

The Israelis have since learned their lesson, says Robert Hunter, who was director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council during the Carter administration. There are up to 40,000 Arabs in Israeli jails today, and many could indeed be released without posing an immediate security threat. Last fall, in an effort to bolster the teetering government of Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert liberated 90 prisoners, none of whom, Olmert swore, had previously engaged in terrorism. And Nissim Nasser—the Hizbullah spy Israel just freed into Lebanon—is now so well known that he no longer poses an espionage threat. "Obviously they only release the people who don't pose a big risk," says Hunter.

Analysts say there's an even greater threat, however: the strategic danger that prisoner swaps will encourage terrorists to take more prisoners, and not only in Israel. "[It] says to future terrorists that if you can get somebody valuable enough, Israelis will trade," says Sandler. "They'll trade if you capture a soldier or children. And the exchange rate is very high." Indeed, a kind of inflation can result. Sandler's data, collected from across the world over 37 years, show that for every kidnapper paid off, 2.5 more abductions took place.

Case in point: in 2004, the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon traded 435 Hizbullah irregulars for a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the remains of three soldiers. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah came out looking like a hero and learned his lesson well: two years later, Hizbullah snatched two soldiers from inside Israel—an incident that led to the Lebanon war of 2006 (the soldiers remain in captivity).

Given the risks, why has Israel stuck with its unofficial policy? Part of the explanation is religious: pidyon shevuyim, the redemption of captives, is a commandment from Genesis. Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, wrote that pidyon shevuyim is a more important duty even than feeding and clothing the poor. More prosaically, Israel is a democracy, and its citizens—especially mothers of young captured soldiers—often put intense pressure on the government to win their release.

While the impetus to trade may be understandable, however, the dangers are very real—and can spread across borders. "There is no question that the Iraqi Shia insurgency learns from Hizbullah, and the Taliban learns from the Sunni insurgency," says Steve Simon, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. Al Qaeda documents released by the Pentagon in 2006 show that the group learned not only from its own experiences, but also from other terrorists like the Italian Red Brigades.

This suggests that terrorist strategists worldwide may be watching Israel closely—and concluding that it would serve them well to capture Western soldiers deployed to hot spots in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. It points to an awkward truth for Israel: the tiny state often feels that it's left on its own to face a great many dangers, and that's true. But in this case, at least, the actions it takes in response can end up endangering us all.