Amid the general jubilation at the long overdue release of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier kidnapped and illegally held prisoner by the terrorist organization Hamas, some have sounded the discordant note that by negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hamas Israel has made a strategic mistake. The contention appears to have some merit, insofar as Hamas has already said that Shalit “will not be the last” soldier to be kidnapped (a tactic caused Likud Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to state, “work[s] against us as efficiently as tanks or missiles”). Con Coughlin and others have raised the further argument that the release deal “will provide an enormous boost for Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that is committed to Israel’s destruction.”
It is critical to understand that Israel’s security is not simply threatened by acts of terrorism, but by a concerted information warfare campaign (among other things). This was recently exemplified by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the United Nations in which he stated that, “It is futile to go into negotiations without clear parameters and in the absence of credibility and a specific timetable.” Abbas’ justification for eschewing negotiations in favor of unilateral action has been the incorrect – but consistently repeated – canard that Israel does not negotiate in good faith. The ultimate target by this strategic form of information warfare is to attack “the decision-process layer–the intellectual processes for interpreting and using information” in order to manipulate perception.”
By successfully negotiating a prisoner release deal with Hamas – which remains openly committed to Israel’s destruction – the Netanyahu government has achieved something tangible through arduous negotiations. In turn, it can be leveraged to reflect poorly on Abbas’ unilateralism and apparently categorical aversion to engaging in substantive negotiations with Israel. There is no question that Israel has paid a significant price to obtain Shalit’s release, but that is entirely the point – negotiations involve compromise, and when the stakes are high necessary concessions will be as well.
Additionally, the release deal is in accordance with the June 24th public statement from the UN Secretary-General’s Spokesperson; namely that Shalit should be immediately released, and that the UN “will continue to support the conclusion of negotiation efforts to secure his release, which would also entail the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners.”
Moreover, any benefits to Hamas within the Palestinian populace should be weighed against the fact that it has already announced that it will abduct further Israeli soldiers (i.e. commit further acts in flagrant violation of international law). It is difficult to see how this even represents a major victory for Hamas, considering that illegally holding Shalit for five years resulted in condemnation from around the world and public statements calling for his immediate release from UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, Quartet Representative Tony Blair, and countless others.
Ultimately, gauging the strategic value of Israel’s action is not yet possible. It will not become readily discernible until Israel leverages its successful negotiation and the various Palestinian factions recalibrate their positions both internally and externally. Regardless, it would be a mistake to immediately consider it a strategic error, even based on purely counter-terrorism grounds.
The battlefield has changed. Information warfare has added “a fourth dimension of warfare to those of air, land, and sea” as USAF Colonel James W. McLendon wrote over 15 years ago. Taking this additional dimension into account, it is fair to consider Shalit’s release as not only a success on moral and human rights grounds, but at least potentially a strategic victory.