If It Comes Time To Negotiate With Terrorists, Never Say Never

Steve Inskeep talks to negations expert Amos Guiora, who is a professor at the University of Utah, and author of Tolerating Intolerance: The Price of Protecting Extremism.

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Now, the swap for Bergdahl prompted many people to recall a truism about American foreign-policy. The line is that America does not negotiate with terrorists, a principle that seemed to have been violated here.


In fact, that truism has not often been true. America has negotiated with terrorists and so have other governments.

INSKEEP: Amos Guiora has been thinking a lot about this. He's a law professor who wrote in The New York Times about his past involvement in prisoner release negotiations for Israel. He's in Jerusalem right now. Welcome to the program.

AMOS GUIORA: Thank you so much for having me.

INSKEEP: So what is it that Israel has done?

GUIORA: In large part, they negotiated with terrorists in order to ensure the coming home of Israeli soldiers, whether dead or alive. The mantra of, never negotiate with terrorists, is, I think, nothing more than a mantra for public consumption.

I think the larger and most important question is whether or not a soldier who has fallen into enemy hands - however he fell into enemy hands, the state has the absolute obligation to bring him home. If he committed a crime, if he abandoned his base, that can be discussed later. But there's a contract in essence, between the state and the soldiers, that if we put you in harm's way, we owe you the duty to bring you home.

INSKEEP: So you are arguing, it seems to me, that the idea that we should never negotiate with terrorists is too simplistic for the real world. But there must be occasions where it's appropriate to negotiate and situations where it is inappropriate. Can you help us draw the line?

GUIORA: Sure, I think that you negotiate when there is a clear benefit to the negotiation process. So if you have my soldier, yes, I will negotiate with you for the release of that soldier. But there's those who argue that, for instance, here in Israel, that Israel will never negotiate with Hamas. Is it perceivable that some Israeli government, some day will negotiate with Hamas? The answer probably is, yes, just like in the United Kingdom, they ultimately also negotiate with the IRA. At the end of the day, there are larger geopolitical, geo-strategic considerations, that are essential to the nation state, just like there is, in terms of returning soldier home and just like there is in terms of negotiation.

INSKEEP: Would you say that it's appropriate to negotiate a prisoner exchange, like the one that got Bowe Bergdahl back in U.S. custody, even if it does lead to later terrorist attacks?

GUIORA: Yes, and I understand the moral argument. But here's the difference, when I would negotiate the release of a soldier, it's an immediate. I bring him home. The argument that - of possible, potential terrorists attacks down the road is amorphous, and it's a potential. It's not an immediate. But because of the importance of that immediate return, because again of the contractual relationship between the individual and the state, that from my perspective, outweighs the potential harm, possibly caused by a possible terrorist attack.

INSKEEP: You know, just before we got you on the phone, I understand you were watching the video that the Taliban have now released of the prisoner exchange in which Bowe Bergdahl is given back to the United States. What, if anything, struck you about that deal?

GUIORA: It was a very business-like transaction. There were, I think, 18 Taliban fighters heavily armed. And then all of sudden a helicopter - a Black Hawk helicopter lands. The Taliban and the special forces fellas shake hands, like captains at beginning of the football game. They turn him over to the Americans, and the helicopter takes off. I mean, it is a very business-like transaction. There's no doubt that many people, with that many weapons, lots of bad things could've gone wrong. But at the end of the day, it was a very, very, very professional transaction. And it was well done, shappo (ph) to those that planned it.

INSKEEP: That Amos Guiora, a professor at the University of Utah and author of several books including "Tolerating Intolerance." He spoke with us from Jerusalem. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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