Memo to Krauthammer: When It Comes to Bergdahl, America Is Not Israel

Memo to Krauthammer: When It Comes to Bergdahl, America Is Not Israel

Almost none of President Obama’s usual media enablers have defended, let alone supported, last week’s Taliban-terror-masters for alleged-army-deserter swap. Surprisingly, the one who has done so most openly is conservative columnist and Fox News analyst Charles Krauthammer.

While eviscerating the administration’s handling of the swap, Krauthammer argues that democracies always negotiate with terrorists while pretending that they don’t because democracies place supreme value upon the lives of their soldiers and even civilians taken prisoner or held hostage. Some Democrat and left-wing operatives – normally those most critical of Israel – have suddenly taken to parroting Krauthammer as a way to defend Obama.

Krauthammer repeatedly and correctly cites what he calls the Israeli example to support the the US’s recent trade of the five most senior Taliban commanders for an army private accused by all his platoon mates of desertion. Israel regularly engages in wildly disproportionate prisoner exchanges – most recently, as Krauthammer has pointed out, in October 2011 when the Jewish state traded 1027 Palestinian prisoners, 280 of whom were serving life sentences after having been convicted of committing terrorist acts, for the return of one Israeli soldier, Private Gilad Shalit.

Like Bergdahl, Shalit had also been held captive by terrorists for roughly five years. Like Bergdahl, he was the only soldier of his country held hostage at the time of the deal, and like Bergdahl’s, Shalit’s captivity was barbaric. Unlike Bergdahl, however, Shalit did not seek out his Hamas captors. He was kidnapped during a highly coordinated pre-dawn Hamas ambush in June 2006 that killed two of Shalit’s platoon mates and seriously wounded another. Shalit himself was wounded in the attack and unable to escape when terrorists lead him away at gunpoint.

That is about where the similarities between Bergdahl and Shalit, and the United States and Israel, end. First, Israel is not the United States. The two countries are vastly different not just in size, history, or geography but in domestic political cultures. The two countries’ relationships with their militaries are vastly different, as are the wars they fight and the enemies they face.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy whose survival depends upon universal mandatory conscription. From the age of 18 every man and women in Israel must serve for a period not less than two years for women and typically not less than three years for men. Upon their discharge, Israeli men must remain active reservists until their late 40s.

The only way Israel has been able to place such extraordinary martial demands upon an entire civilian and democratic society for as long as it has – 66 years – has been for Israel’s military to be subservient to Israeli society’s specific and unique demands. One of these is the guaranteed return, dead or alive, of any Israeli serviceman or woman either taken or fallen in defense of the country, no matter the price. It isn’t just Israelis who understand this bargain. Israel’s enemies understand all too well themselves. Once the dynamic was set in place, trades of wildly disproportionate magnitude have become harder to prevent.

American society places no such demands upon its citizenry – not even close. Fewer than 2% of Americans ever do any military service. The overwhelming majority of Americans don’t even know anyone who serves or has ever served. That is part of the reason that the Bergdahl-Taliban swap has so thoroughly disgusted the American public. The US public doesn’t expect let alone demand that no price is too high to pay for the return of any American soldier, let alone a deserter. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t “spring” the trade for Private Shalit upon an unsuspecting Israeli public. He was compelled to do so by an unforgiving and relentless public.

Another reason the Israeli analogy doesn’t hold is that the circumstances and conditions of those released are so vastly different. President Obama released the five senior Taliban terrorist masterminds 8,000 miles from US shores to vanish into the vast untraceable wastelands of Afghanistan. Palestinian terrorists “set free” by Israel are released eight miles from Israel’s borders, if not inside them.

Palestinian terrorists released by Israel do not vanish into a vast untraceable ether. They are released well within the webs of Israel’s extensive and effective intelligence networks inside Palestinian territories. Furthermore, many of the most dangerous terrorists that Israel releases have the nasty habit of dying soon after their releases in unexplained “work accidents.”

None of the above makes Israel’s release of terrorist murderers any less gut-wrenching to the majority of Israelis who reluctantly support the releases, not to mention that very large minority who oppose them. Never, ever are such deals “celebrated” by Israeli officials. They are mourned.