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A bloody transaction, or: why one Israeli prisoner is worth one thousand Palestinians?

I am proud to officially open the English version of the “Owl”. In this blog, I will try to open new windows to shadowy corners of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Middle Eastern politics. Today I would like to introduce you to the hidden logic of Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps.

In the history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, prisoner swap deals have always played a prominent role. Only recently, in October 2011, the Israeli government agreed to liberate and repatriate 1027 Palestinian prisoners, some of them arch-terrorists and murderers with blood on their hands, in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit. This deal gave a free rein to intense feelings in the Israeli public, ranging from hurrahs to cries of anguish. The supporters of the swap, most of them from the left, or center left, emphasized the solidarity of Israeli society, its humanness and its indebtedness to the soldiers fighting in its name. The people who opposed it from the right, however, lamented the government’s “lack of spine” in front of terrorists. Some of them expressed the rather justified fear, that this hugely unequal deal may encourage Hamas to kidnap yet more soldiers.

Gilad Shalit immediately after his repatriation to Israel

And yet, both supporters and skeptics were amazed by the unreasonable “rate of exchange” in the Gilad Shalit deal. One Israeli soldier for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners? How can it be? In Maariv, the conservative publicist Ben Dror Yemini raged because of the “high”, “intolerable” price, and even some observers on the radical left raised similar concerns. For example, Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian, a well-known anti-Israeli venue, that an exchange of one thousand Palestinians for one Israeli soldier is nothing but dehumanization of Palestinians, as the exchange rate “tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen [see footnote] are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours”.

As usual with Israeli-Palestinian affairs, all sides are splurging in a swamp of self-righteous, patriotic speech, and few dare to confront the simple, cynical and shocking truth behind the barter: prisoner swaps are a transaction, which follows basic rules of supply and demand just like any other. When an item is in short supply, and consequently high demand, its price tends to rise. If, however, the supply is high and the demand is low, the price will usually decrease.

If we accept this simple idea, it is not so difficult to understand why one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was swapped for 1027 Palestinian prisoners, and why his name is known all over the world, while their names are mostly unknown. It has nothing to do with the fact that Shalit is a “legitimate” soldier, and its Palestinian counterparts are “terrorists”. The economic principles behind such transactions are indifferent to moralistic considerations such as this. The crucial fact is, that it is very difficult for the Palestinians to kidnap an Israeli soldier, while the IDF can easily arrest terrorists or other Palestinian activists in their hundreds and thousands. Here is the key to  understand the swap: Gilad Shalit is more “expensive”, only because it was more difficult and dangerous to kidnap him.

Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Al-Aksa Brigades during the second Intifada. Prominent prisoners, such as him, were not released

And what about the so-called “prominent” prisoners, the “colonels” and “generals” of Hamas, as well as political leaders such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, whom Israel refused to release? Because they are more dangerous for Israeli security, the demand for their release and consequently their price is much higher. And indeed, we have seen that Israel refused to release most of the “prominent” prisoners, and the few who were released were promptly expelled from the West Bank. Here, also, Hamas had finally approved the deal based on an understanding of its underlying economic principles. Its leaders preferred to release a large number of “cheap” prisoners, than to insist in vain on the repatriation of a small number of “expensive” ones.

Such an analysis may seem cold and heartless, but sometimes reality had to be faced as it is. From this point of view, it is interesting to ask: how can Israel improve its position next time it will be faced with a kidnapped soldier? First of all, the public campaign for Shalit’s release was a double-edged sword. From the one side, it is clear that without it, the government would not have been pressured to negotiate and pay a price for the deal in the first place. From the other side, though, this noisy, emotional and highly effective campaign raised the demand for Gilad Shalit in the Israeli side. His price, it is needless to say, soared with the demand. Given the absence of such a public campaign, it is reasonable that the swap would not have taken place at all (the demand is too low), or, if it would have taken place, the price in liberated Palestinian prisoners would have been significantly lower.

Elhanan Tenenbaum- Israel paid a very high price to release a drug dealer

Moreover, a cold analysis may show that contrary to the speculations of right winged publicists, there is no way to dramatically change the exchange rate in such prisoner swaps. As long as it is more difficult to kidnap Israeli soldiers than to arrest Palestinian terrorists, the formers will be more expensive than the laters; significantly more expensive. However, even in these circumstances, the mistakes that Israel had done in the previous prisoner swap with Hezbollah had dire consequences. Just to remind you: Israel had agreed to pay a high price and to release the terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered a little girl, for three dead bodies of soldiers. An even higher price was paid for Col. (retired) Elhanan Tennenbaum, a dismal drug dealer who fell into Lebanese hands. The leaders of Hamas, who have seen that Israel is ready to pay such a high price even for three dead bodies and one criminal, naturally concluded that the price for a living soldier will be substantially higher. In the future, I believe, Israel must not negotiate as long as it is unclear that the prisoner is alive, and never, never again should they barter living prisoners for dead bodies. This deal was so stupid, and its consequences for future swaps so dramatic, that it is a mystery for me how and why the Israeli government approved it.

Meanwhile, there is no reason not to assume that the next “bloody transactions” will be different. Patriotic lamentations or self-righteous rage are futile, as they cannot change the solid economic logic behind such deals. If Israel does not want to pay a similarly high price next time, it should refuse to do business altogether. Namely, to ignore kidnapped soldiers just as the US army is doing. However, taking the Israeli public opinion into account, it is hard to believe that such a policy is possible.