Ron Arad and Yishai Aviram found themselves hurtling toward the earth after ejecting from their F-4 Israeli jet, dodging bullets as they floated in the air over southern Lebanon. An Israeli rescue helicopter got close enough for Aviram, and only Aviram, to make an escape right out of the movies—he grabbed the outside of the chopper and held on for dear life while it flew home. This was October 16, 1986, and it was the last time Arad would be seen by a fellow Israeli, alive or dead.

Arad’s capture by Lebanese militants that night, the failed negotiations for his release that followed, and his subsequent disappearance have haunted the Jewish state ever since. Yet what has haunted Israel as much as its failed efforts to exchange prisoners with its enemies are its successful ones. Indeed, Arad’s capture came in the wake of a prisoner swap that would lead directly to the birth of Hamas and the planning and execution of the first Palestinian intifada. And the structure of that 1985 deal—in which three captured IDF soldiers were traded for a thousand convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons, including 80 tied to murders—set a precedent that has handcuffed Israeli leaders ever since.

As of this writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is negotiating for the release of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas during its October 7 rampage. It would be the third such high-profile deal overseen by Netanyahu in the years of his premierships. The first came in 2011. It was the deal that brought home Gilad Shalit, probably the most famous captive to come back alive, after five years in captivity. The baby-faced corporal’s return was practically a national holiday in Israel. But for Israelis today, the most salient detail of the Shalit trade might be the sobering fact that one of the men released from prison in return for Shalit’s freedom was Yahya Sinwar.

Sinwar is the operational leader of Hamas and the mastermind behind October 7, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. The massacre took place almost exactly 12 years after Shalit’s homecoming to the waiting arms of the same prime minister who now finds himself negotiating with Sinwar for the return of 109 Israeli hostages—a number that includes children and the elderly.

And it confronts Israeli society with the question that weighs on its citizens every single time there is a ghost of a chance to redeem a Jew taken captive: At what price?

This is not an academic question. Israel is a Jewish state, guided not only by its religion’s laws, norms, and traditions but shaped by the Jewish community’s experiences over millennia. And our history has much to say about redeeming captives.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we read: “Those destined for the plague, to the plague; those destined for the sword, to the sword; those destined for famine, to famine; those destined for captivity, to captivity.” For Jeremiah, each fate is worse than the one that preceded it. Therefore, captivity is the worst fate. The Talmud’s sages tell us it contains all the death and suffering of the other categories. And our lawbooks impose on us a clear obligation to save others from it.

Maimonides’s great work, Mishneh Torah (1180), tells us “there is no greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives.” The Shulchan Aruch, the towering 16th-century code of law that remains the Jewish version of a law code, codifies that principle. But it adds one more: “Captives are not to be ransomed at an unreasonable cost, for the safety of society; otherwise, the enemies would exert every effort to capture victims.”

Thus the tension at the center of our current predicament: We must prioritize the redemption of captives, but there is a cost that is too high.

Throughout history, that question was a literal one. Jews, just like anyone else, could be taken hostage by pirates or other ransom-seekers. The injunction against overpaying was to discourage hostage-takers from specifically targeting Jews, with the understanding that Jewish captives would fetch a higher price because their faith demanded it; such targeting would place Jews in disproportionate danger.

Now, in an age when terrorists don’t ask for money but for the release of other terrorists, by what metric do we determine what is too dear a price?

This was explored most comprehensively in the case of Entebbe, the famous Israeli rescue of the hijacked Air France passengers held hostage in 1976 in Uganda. Before the rescue mission played out, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was asked about whether it would be permissible to release terrorist prisoners in exchange for the hostages. Rabbi Yosef’s responsa were deeply learned, steeped in the Talmudic arguments as well as historical precedents, full of sobriety and empathy at the same time.

He did not deny that exchanging terrorists for captives could encourage further terrorism, but he said that concern was overridden by two factors. First, the sages who debated these matters in the past presented exceptions to the prohibition of overpayment, one of which is immediate mortal danger to the captive. Yosef noted that this would apply in the case of the Entebbe hostages, whose captors were threatening to execute them.

This was the modern incarnation of the problem. A Jew who was taken captive as part of a wider group, all for the sake of ransom money, might not be in any more danger than the others. But a Jew taken specifically because he was Jewish by terrorists whose purpose is to harm Jews is clearly in a different category.

Yet if the ransoming of hostages at a disproportionate price is deemed halachically acceptable, that does not make it politically acceptable. The debate around this seminal question—At what price?—has left deep wounds in Israeli politics and society, and the current crisis in Gaza is no exception.

The Jewish obligation to redeem captives is matched by a ferocious determination to save them by any means. The prisoner swap sanctioned by Rabbi Yosef never happened, because Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered the daring and almost completely successful rescue.

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There is also a pragmatic reason for Israel’s commitment to redeeming captives. It is a source of legitimacy for the IDF. As a nation with full conscription, the basic deal Israelis make with their government is this: We give you our sons and daughters, and then you give them back. The common expression in Israel is that its soldiers are “everyone’s children.” This is more than a mere sentimental point; it is a crucial source of military and social cohesion.

Still, it is undeniable that the Israeli negotiating strategy over the years has led to a massive increase in the price Israel is willing to pay—and to the unforeseen consequences of Israeli deaths and casualties caused by the aftermath of the deals.

In 1978, the IDF began a military campaign to push the Palestine Liberation Organization out of southern Lebanon, whence it was launching deadly attacks on Israeli civilians. After the operation, five Israeli soldiers—Avraham Amram and four others—were caught by Palestinian terrorists. As they began negotiations for the soldiers’ release, the Israelis hoped to keep any prisoner swap to one of two parameters. The first: offer one Israeli for one jailed terrorist. The second: be willing, if necessary, to trade all the Palestinians captured in this operation for the Israelis taken in the same time frame. This would have mimicked a prisoners-of-war exchange between nation-states.

The Palestinian terrorists, led by Ahmed Jibril, who broke away from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to form his own group, rejected this framework entirely. In the end, the Israelis eventually capitulated, trading 76 prisoners for Amram and the bodies of the others. 

Jibril had learned an important lesson. Four years later, a team of Fatah terrorists captured eight Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. At some point as they were marching the hostages to a place they could be held, the Fatah men asked Jibril’s group for help. Jibril agreed and took two of the IDF soldiers for himself.

In return for Fatah’s six, Israel released all detainees in a Lebanese wartime prison camp, which the IDF had been looking to dismantle anyway, as well as 100 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Next it was Jibril’s turn. He held the two he’d taken from Fatah plus a third. As negotiations with Jibril picked up in 1984, Israel was going through an important change in its security strategy. Since its founding, Israel had, at least unofficially, made military decisions based on civilian security. If either troops or civilians had to be put in danger, it would always be the soldiers. But that precept was shifting. The shift was evident in the decision in 1985 to reduce the size of the zone of IDF occupation in southern Lebanon. This made life safer for Israeli soldiers—but it also increased the level of danger for citizens in northern Israel by allowing the enemy to come closer to Israel’s border.

Explaining the Israeli mindset, the longtime government official Moshe Arens wrote in his memoirs, published in English in 2018:

In Israel, a small country with compulsory military service, most adults have children or grandchildren doing military service. A soldier who has fallen is to them a child lost, a feeling also shared by their friends and neighbors. When the picture of a fallen soldier is published it is almost as if the whole country shares in the grief of the bereaved family. Thus the loss of a soldier may well touch many more of Israel’s citizens than does the loss of a civilian to enemy action.

The nation’s concern for the lives of its children serving in the IDF is the reason why successive Israeli governments have staged unilateral withdrawals, have hesitated to bring military operations to a decisive victory, or have failed to take preemptive military action that might ensure the safety of Israel’s civilian population.

The conundrum Israel faced and faces—that its enemies may need to be confronted in a way that the society simply cannot stomach, given the dangers posed to the young men and women who serve as its chief line of protection—was something Ahmed Jibril exploited brilliantly. In May 1985, he got Israel to agree to an unprecedented trade: Jibril would return the three IDF soldiers held by his group, and in return Israel would free 1,150 prisoners from its jails, some of whom would be chosen by Jibril himself. Yitzhak Rabin, then the defense minister, explained the deal before the Knesset: “I see this as a supreme moral responsibility which a government, a defense minister, the state of Israel, owes each of them. This is our humane, moral obligation to the fate of an Israeli, and certainly to the fate of an IDF soldier sent into battle at our command.”

But the cost was steep. Among those released were Kozo Okamoto, the Japanese Red Army terrorist who had led a massacre of 26 people at Ben-Gurion airport (known as Lod at the time) in 1972. More consequential was Ahmed Yassin, who would found and lead Hamas at the outset of the first intifada two years later. Also freed was Ziad Nakhaleh, the current leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the group’s military-wing commander during the first intifada. Jibril himself was credited with one of the attacks that triggered that intifada, in which—in another historical echo—fighters under his command killed several Israeli soldiers after crossing from Lebanon on hang gliders. (Hamas used the vehicle’s more technologically advanced progeny, the motorized paraglider, during its October 7 attacks.)

A 2004 swap saw Israel bring home one live captive, the businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, who had been taken by Hezbollah in 2001, in return for 435 prisoners. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said that one of those released in that deal, Luay Saadi, went on to set up a terror cell that killed 30 Israelis.

In general, Dagan said, recidivism by freed terrorists was high—probably 45 percent. According to an organization that advocates for victims of terror, 80 percent of terrorists released since the Jibril deal went back to their old ways. (Not all, it has to be said, gained their liberty in hostage swaps.)

Dagan left office in January 2011. That October, Israel would complete its deal for Gilad Shalit. In June 2006, Shalit’s tank crew was ambushed by Hamas terrorists on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. Shalit was taken back to the Strip. Two subsequent Israeli rescue operations in Gaza failed. In 2011, Netanyahu agreed to release 1,027 prisoners in Israeli jails for Shalit. Four years later, the Times of Israel reported that between April 2014 and July 2015, six Israelis had been murdered by prisoners released in the Shalit deal. And then came October 7, 2023.

On January 30, 2024, Netanyahu spoke at a pre-military academy and said, “We will not remove the IDF from the Gaza Strip and we will not release thousands of terrorists. None of this will happen. What will happen? Absolute victory!” Meanwhile, press reports indicated that Israel and Hamas were creeping closer to a hostage deal—and if there is one, there will surely be Palestinian terrorists freed because of it.

In a 1986 essay written just at the beginning of his meteoric political rise, Netanyahu—who had made his name in part as the head of an organization called the Jonathan Institute, dedicated to the study of international terrorism—asserted that terrorist hostage-taking can be stopped with a policy of “refusal to yield and a readiness to apply force.” To the terrorist, this proposes “a simple exchange: your life for the lives of the hostages.” He acknowledged that a rescue operation isn’t always possible. Nevertheless, “governments must persist in refusing to capitulate. This is both a moral obligation to other potential hostages and, in the long view, the only pragmatic posture.”

What Netanyahu said may have been true then, and it may be true now—but it turns out that a democratic society that cherishes its children is unable to make its calculations on safety and risk with pragmatism as its guide. It’s easier to write such an essay when you’re not in power.

The ultimate dilemma for Israel is this: It is religiously and morally obliged to do everything it can to rescue Jews held hostage. At the same time, it is religiously and morally and politically obliged to defend the Jewish state as a whole. This is an irreconcilable dilemma, because its enemies are there to take advantage of the contradiction every time.

Photo: AP Photo/Adel Hana

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