Critics Question Israel's Prisoner Swap Israeli officials freed five Hezbollah militants on Wednesday in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured and killed by the militant group in 2006. Guests and callers weigh in on the controversial deal, which some people have criticized as a lopsided exchange.
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Critics Question Israel's Prisoner Swap

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Critics Question Israel's Prisoner Swap

Critics Question Israel's Prisoner Swap

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week, Israel conducted a lopsided prisoner exchange with Hezbollah. The Lebanese political and military group celebrated the return of five men Israelis regard as terrorists and handed over coffins containing the remains of two Israeli soldiers. We'll have more on the specifics in just a few moments, but the swap raises questions about how democracies deal with terrorists, non-state actors and with outright enemies. Like the United States and many other democracies, Israel insists it does not negotiate with hijackers and terrorists, but in reality, there are many circumstances where ransoms are paid and prisoners exchanged. Some of those deals are public, some not.

The media and public opinion play parts that governments do not always find helpful and each agreement establishes precedents and sets parameters for future deals. Absolute positions are easy to declare, but sometimes are difficult to maintain. Think Ronald Reagan and the arms for hostages deal. If you've been a prisoner or a captive, what did you want your government to do? Can a state abandon its citizens and its soldiers in enemy hands? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Our e-mail address is and you can comment on our blog at

Later in the program, the long history of American bank runs from the panic of 1809 to IndyMac. But first, prisoner swaps. In a few minutes, we'll talk with Natan Sharansky who was thrown into the gulag in the old Soviet Union and eventually exchanged for a spy. He's now a politician in Israel who opposes prisoner swaps. But we begin with Amos Harel. He's defense correspondent for Haaretz, a daily newspaper in Israel. He joins us on the line from his home outside Tel Aviv. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. AMOS HAREL (Defense Correspondent, Haaretz): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And Israel has repeated - long history of being involved in one-sided prisoner exchanges and not just with states but with non-state actors. Why do they do it?

Mr. HAREL: I think, first and foremost, it has to do with Israeli mentality. It's a small country. We take things very emotionally. We look at our prisoners of war as almost personal friends, almost heroes, people that should be returned back at any cost. And the last prisoner swap is quite a good example for that because we knew, at least, we presume that we're going to get only soldiers' bodies back, but still, we gave Hezbollah and Lebanon back five prisoners, one of them, a man who was actually convicted of murdering two Israeli soldiers. And if you look at the history of prisoner swaps in the last 20 years, in many cases, Israel did give back hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, sometimes for one or two soldiers who are alive at the hands of the enemy.

CONAN: So, given the presumption that there were going to be coffins in exchange for these five Lebanese and also the remains of some Lebanese who died in Israeli hands, there was more involved than just that. But nevertheless, Israel had to know, the government had to know that this would be a tremendous victory for Hezbollah, that this would be trumpeted as the final completion of their objectives of the war a couple of years ago.

Mr. HAREL: True. But on the other hand, again, the symbolism works both ways because Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced in the beginning of the war that he was in fact retaliating because of the abduction and that he wants those soldiers back. We needed a sort of a closure for this thing. Two years, the anniversary was last week. Two years since the war started, we all know by now that it was a failure. At least Israel itself considers it an Israeli failure. And he had to end the story. And of course, it wasn't an established fact that they were both dead. Hezbollah, in a very cruel way, kept that a secret.

It's true that the Israeli intelligence has received information that it was presumed that those men have died during the abduction, but Hezbollah actually refused to tell us until the last moment. If you looked at the pictures from the border crossing, you could see that Hezbollanic top negotiator refusing to answer Lebanese journalist question until the last minute, until the coffins was shown. So, this was a personal tragedy for the two families and I think Olmert felt obligated to end this and to bring those soldiers, even if they were bodies, to bring them back to be buried in Israel and the price isn't enormous.

We're talking of five people returned to Lebanon, one of them a terrorist, the others, prisoners of war Hezbollah fighters. It's not the same price we're discussing. If you know, we have an abducted soldier, Gilad Schalit, who remains in the hand of Hamas in Gaza for more than two years. There, he is alive and therefore, the price discussed is hundreds, maybe a thousand Palestinian prisoners will be released to get him back.

CONAN: What was the role of public opinion and the media in this negotiation?

Mr. HAREL: Both played a very big role. I think public opinion, except for maybe a small minority in the right wing politicians, and voters from right wing parties, most Israeli supported the deal. They didn't go to it with open hearts without being too happy about it, but the feeling was that we need a closure, we needed the end of this tragedy and we needed to know if these soldiers are alive or dead and to bring them back to their families. The general opinion was that it wasn't too much of a high price. People, of course, regretted those pictures coming from Beirut, almost a national holiday, celebrations and so on and all this for a man who 30 years ago, as I've said, murdered Israeli children.

CONAN: And what is the political fallout a week later after everybody, of course, knows that the men were dead?

Mr. HAREL: I don't think that it's so great. Olmert of course is facing other problems right now. He's facing six different investigations on corruption, scandals. His government has hardly survived. It's believed here that there will be elections in about six months' time. I don't think the fallout is too great but I do see an influence of this deal on the next one, because of the fate of Schalit, and we know that he's alive and we know that there's a very narrow window of opportunity. If we want to bring him back, this has to be done in the next few months.

Otherwise, he might disappear somewhere in Gaza. I think we see more and more both Israeli citizens and politicians who say the price this time is too high. And unlike Hezbollah, the struggle with Hamas is on a daily basis. If we release those prisoners, some of them - the Hamas demands release of murderers who were involved in enormous attacks of suicide bombings in the last few years - if we release those people to the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, we might face them, we might see them sending new terrorists in a very short time.

CONAN: And finally, as we said at the outset, Israel's stated policy is that it does not negotiate with terrorists or with hijackers. How does the reality of deals, not just this deal but deals with, well, not only its neighboring states but with other terrorist organizations in the past - with Ahmed Jabril?

Mr. HAREL: As you've mentioned in your opening remarks, there's always a difference, a huge gap between the state of policy and what actually happens behind the scene. Now, Israel wouldn't admit it publicly. I think, if you want to rephrase the policy, I think the right thing to say is that if Israel has a chance of getting soldiers or kidnapped civilians back by force, it will use it, and it has done so in the past. You just have to go back 30 years to that remarkable operation in Entebbe in Uganda where a plane full of Israeli citizens who were hijacked was released by force, by sending Israeli commandos thousands of miles into - thousands of kilometers into Africa to release them.

So if there's an operational opportunity, then Israel would decide on this. If, like the case of the two soldiers, you don't have enough information, you don't know where they are kept, you don't know even if they're alive or dead, then you do negotiate. Again, I think that Olmert's problem was that he was, unlike Sharon or Rabin who are much more careful, our previous prime ministers who are more experienced on such issues and more careful about the way they talk, for Olmert, talk - I'd say, he was too arrogant, too full of himself when these things started in the beginning of the war thing. No negotiations, bringing them back by force when actually if he talked to the right people, he should have known that this was impossible.

CONAN: Amos Harel, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. HAREL: Thank you.

CONAN: Amos Harel, defense correspondent for Haaretz, a daily newspaper in Israel, with us on the line from his home outside Tel Aviv. And we turn now to someone with direct experience with prisoner exchanges, Natan Sharansky. He was released from the Soviet Gulag two decades ago. He's a former Israeli politician now and the author of a number of books. His latest, "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in the Protection of Democracy." Today he joins us from the studio in Jerusalem in Israel. And Natan Sharansky, nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. NATAN SHARANSKY (Former Member of Knesset, Author, "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in the Protection of Democracy"): Good evening - good afternoon.

CONAN: And do you have any mixed feelings at all when you watched that prisoner exchange last week?

Mr. SHARANSKY: Oh, yeah. I had very mixed feelings. You know, each such act has human and principle sides. On human side - yes, it was said already, we are a small family. Everybody feels the feeling of brothers. We have a lot of compassion to the families. We want our boys - or even dead bodies of our boys, we want them back. The principle side is, what about security of all of our citizens? Is it becoming stronger or weaker? Security for them today and tomorrow. And each such deal creates precedent for the next one where the price is becoming bigger and motivation for terrorists higher. That's why - well, it's easy to speak when you are not in the government, you don't have to vote yourself.

But with the previous deal, I was in the government and they voted against and Prime Minister called, Ariel Sharon called me said before they vote, Natan, you were in prison. You have to understand why we have to vote for this, why you have to support me. I said, as the one who was in prison and who knows that it is very important that your country is fighting for you, but it's also - you also know that there is price which should not be paid. I personally refused to be released when I was asked to pay a price for which I believed was weakening our movement. When I had to sign a letter, which I didn't want to sign and I preferred to stay a few more years in prison but not to give up on the interest of our struggle on bigger concept of security, for our struggle, for our movement, for our country. And the same is here. Yeah, I'm very torn apart. On one hand, I'm all with the families. On the other hand, I think that it's irresponsible to give such a high motivation to terrorists to continue with their acts.

CONAN: Just to clarify. You were talking about your case. You were held in the Soviet Union, you were accused of espionage. In fact, you were a political prisoner and activist for Soviet Jewry and were eventually exchanged in a spy swap, which really you had no control over.

Mr. SHARANSKY: Well, that's something different. Look, I was - Americans were insistent for all these years that I'm not spy and of course, I wasn't. The Soviets were insistent that I am a spy and so, when there was a swap between few spies from both sides, I was released half hour before this. There is no principle price which was paid Russia or America for this. But when they were ready to release me for making some principle concessions for which all our movement will suffer, I refused and preferred to stay in prison. And I think the prime minister has to decide that the interest of security of all our citizens, demand from him to take this difficult decision.

CONAN: We have to go to a short break. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about prisoner exchanges and how democracies deal with terrorists and other enemies. If you've found yourself in the situation, you or a member of your family has been captured or kidnapped, what did you want your government to do? What in fact, did they do? Give us a call. Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, Can a state abandon its citizens and soldiers in enemy hands?

Our guest is Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, now an activist in Israel. His latest book is called "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in the Protecting Democracy." And Mr. Sharansky, if you would tell us just a little bit more about this most recent agreement. And again, the precedent which it sets, as we mentioned earlier, there's another Israeli soldier being held this time in the Gaza Strip. Do you fear that the price will be even higher next time and the time after that?

Mr. SHARANSKY: It's all of us. All of us, when we are making these type of concessions to terrorists, the price next time is higher. The previous exchange, which was three years ago when for the first time, we agreed in exchange for the three coffins, three bodies, dead bodies of our soldiers and one drug dealer to release hundreds of terrorists. When Ariel Sharon was asking me to support this deal and I refused, I wrote then that next time, we'll be releasing terrorists only for the dead bodies because now they got the principle that the price, the value of human life, value even of human emotions, of solidarity with the families is so high and so deep in our society, and correctly so, that we will be ready to face the most - the highest price. And terrorists will use it and next time, the price will be higher.

And here comes the deal where no alive citizens of our country are released. There are only two bodies and five terrorists. Now we really want our soldier who was captured, who was on mission, of the state of Israel was captured, of course, we have to do everything to release him. The price now became much higher and now enemies are talking about hundreds of thousands of terrorists. And the only way to stop it is to make the terrorists feel the price which they are paying - they are paying for making such acts of terror is almost unbearable for them. Just before there was mentioned, Entebbe - I have to tell that Entebbe happened, Entebbe - the release of Israeli hostages hundreds of miles, thousands of miles from Israel by Israeli army happened just before I went to prison. And nine years that I was in prison, it was the image of Entebbe, of the country which should make everything to release you which was supporting me. Each time I'm in Siberia. I heard the airplane, the engine of some Soviet airplane of course. I inevitably thought about the airplanes sent by Israel to release hostage. That's what gives the hope, and if we're paying higher and higher and higher price to terrorists, it only decreases our hopes.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Our number again, 800-989-8255. And Michael is calling us. Michael is calling us from Saudi Arabia.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

MICHAEL: Hi. I am a Swiss citizen and I was thrown in jail for a couple of weeks in Saudi for being accused of taking photos. I'm a photographer and they accused me of photos around a restricted area. It was an unmarked restricted area and I was thrown in jail for about two weeks. And the Swiss did almost nothing to get me out. The only reason I got out is because just before they took my cell phone away from me, I messaged a friend of mine and he made a few phone calls and they managed to get me out. I was told that the Swiss called the Ministry of Interior but they did nothing after that. They were told that they didn't know where I was and then they just did nothing and I would probably still have been there for a couple more weeks after that if the people I knew didn't actually make efforts to find me

CONAN: This seems, I guess, more of a diplomatic situation. Were you ever formally charged?

MICHAEL: No. I was thrown in jail. There was no papers ever - I signed. At the end, yes, they released me and I signed a document saying I will not do this again, etcetera, etcetera. But there was no actual, being arrested for this because I was, for a period of three to four days no one told me what the actual reasoning was. I surmised it because I can understand Arabic, very badly, but I surmised it from basically from what they were saying to each other and...

CONAN: I have to ask you, Michael. You went through this experience and you're calling us now from Saudi Arabia?

MICHAEL: Yeah. It's a funny country. It's interesting and it's got its moments. I'm leaving very soon, though, so.

CONAN: Michael, good luck to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

Mr. SHARANSKY: Looks like I can compare to that to Israel. Whenever a citizen of Israel is in trouble, Israel on all the levels is mobilized immediately. And that's really the greatness, the good side of our country. And the fact that we are so concerned about his and her life, the problem is that the government has to think not only about the life of this specific person but also how we are fighting with terrorists in order to protect the lives of all our citizens. And also, Michael signed the papers that he will not do it again and it wasn't really a principle case because he didn't know himself what he had done.

CONAN: Had done in the first place. Yes.

Mr. SHARANSKY: Well, I refused to sign the papers that I will not do it again because it was a very princilel case. And the struggle, hundreds of thousands Soviet Jews depended on it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Tayish(ph) on the line. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. She's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

TAYISH: (Caller): Yes, you did.

CONAN: Go ahead please.

TAYISH: Hi, everyone, first of all. I was just telling the person that my mom was a hostage at Nord-Ost about five years ago. And while Chechen terrorists were holding them down. And the only thing they were asking for - that they didn't ask for money or to let anybody out, I assume, as I remember, they just wanted the troops out of Chechnya at that time.

CONAN: Which would have been a very important concession.

TAYISH: Excuse me?

CONAN: Which would have been a major concession by the Russian government.


CONAN: And what happened? What did you want the Russian government to do?

TAYISH: Well, she said that they were actually treating them very, I guess, humanely as much as they can. And the only thing they wanted was the end of the war. So I think it's you know - it's somewhat similar with the Israel and I completely agree with his comment that he made before that you know, if you pay them once, they're going to just keep on doing it and doing it. So unless you can't resolve the problem somehow in another way...

CONAN: But you must have known while your mom was being held hostage that this was a price the Russian government would not pay.

TAYISH: Yes, I did. And I was very worried and my friends were telling me that, you know, the odds of survival are very, very slim, if none. And you know, I'm very grateful that the siege happened because they think you know without it, nothing would have been resolved anyway. A lot more people would have died so...

CONAN: Well, did your mom make it out okay?

TAYISH: Yes, she did.

CONAN: Well, congratulations for that. I appreciate it. And Natan Sharansky, that raises another point. It's not just the exchange of men. There was that celebration in Beirut. This provides Hezbollah, which hardly needs it but even more political legitimacy and in the past, the Israelis made swaps with people like Ahmed Jabril and that gives him legitimacy, too. Political status is part of these agreements.

Mr. SHARANSKY: No doubt. First of all, it reminds to everybody how different are these two societies. We celebrate life, they celebrate death and they say it real proudly. For them, this awful terrorist is a big national hero. But this formula, we celebrate life and they celebrate death would seem for us has a big power of our society. In their eyes, it's big strength of their society. That's exactly what I'm writing about in the book "Defending Identity." That they believe that they are ready to die for something and they think that we are not there to die for anything, that they can blackmail us with a life of one of our citizens and to get everything, and this is something very dangerous.

And that's why our strong will has to strengthen our democracy and freedom and that's why we have our leaders in or prime minister or government. They are making these decisions. They have to understand that with those goals, the very principle thing of giving more legitimacy and more motivation to terrorists.

CONAN: Let's get Leonard on the line. Leonard with us from Parma in Ohio.

LEONARD (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

LEONARD: That's good. I appreciate you taking my call. I'm a former Marine, U.S. Marine, and I volunteered to serve my country and knew the risks of going to war. I was prepared to - if ever being caught and becoming a prisoner of war, I was prepared for that. I don't believe that any government should bargain away especially when you have somebody like this guy that was just - I don't remember his name. It was just turned back to Lebanon.

Mr. SHARANSKY: Kantar.

LEONARD: He was a criminal. He killed people. How can you - I feel very sorry for the people, the parents, the loved ones of the dead Israeli soldiers. I do feel very sorry for them, but if you go deep into religion, I mean, it's not the body that goes to heaven. It's the soul. So wherever these dead soldiers are, their soul is in heaven, and now you have convicted terrorists back out there, and they're going to go and they're going to ply their trade again.

CONAN: Parma - excuse me, Leonard. You say that as a Marine, I presume you were also ready to risk your life to save and to bring back the bodies of dead Marines on the battlefield.

LEONARD: Yes, I was. I was. I was prepared to do that. If it wasn't possible, then it wasn't possible. But that was the Marine Corps credo - we do not leave behind our dead. Yes.

CONAN: And how are the situations different to the government leaving behind its dead?

LEONARD: You're putting a larger population at risk when you, when you take a man that is a convicted killer, a terrorist. I mean, he's not just a killer, he's - a terrorist is worse than just a killer. And he's going to go back out there and he's going to gather up more to follow him and he's going to be more of a danger to your society. That would be the difference.

CONAN: Leonard, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.

LEONARD: Thank you. Bye bye.

CONAN: And Natan Sharansky, I presume you would have very little argument with that.

Mr. SHARANSKY: Well, I have very little argument. I only want to mention that a big number of Israeli reserve officers and soldiers wrote a letter that asked not to negotiate with any terrorists or other part about releasing their bodies, if God forbid, they will be killed - not, for the release - not to release any of the terrorists in exchange for their bodies.

CONAN: Natan Sharansky, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

SHARNSKY: Thank you.

CONAN: Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli politician, the author of a number of books. His most recent "Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy" and he joined us today from a studio in Jerusalem, in Israel. You're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News.

As a rule, the United States does not engage in prisoner exchanges, but that was not the case during the Civil War, when the North and South ironed out an informal agreement on prisoner swaps, how many Confederate officers equal a Union private. Jeffry Wert is here to tell us. He's an historian and an author specializing in the American Civil War. He joins us today from the studio at member station WPSU in University Park in Pennsylvania. Nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. JEFFRY WERT (Author, "Cavalryman of the Lost Cause"): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And what was the exchange program that was set up between the Union and the Confederacy.

Mr. WERT: Well, it began slowly. The key thing initially was that President Abraham Lincoln refused any kind of an arrangement with the Confederate government that might recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government. So, nothing occurred early. And then after the First Battle of Bull Run, which was a Union defeat in July of 1861, the quartermaster general of the Army, Montgomery Meigs, made a suggestion or indicated to the, you know, the federal government that if they want to consider prisoner exchange because hundreds of Union soldiers have been captured.

But nothing really occurred then for another year, and it wasn't until really in July of 1862 after, well, really Union successes that winter and then in the west particularly, but then the Confederacy has successes around Richmond in the end of June '62 that both governments agreed to - and it was specifically as far as Lincoln was concerned, that there would be no formal recognition in any way of the Confederacy, so they set up this cartel or prisoner exchange program that would run for a year or more, and then it would be delayed. But they set up a cartel...

CONAN: But this was a military agreement, not a political agreement.

Mr. WERT: Exactly. It was a military agreement, because Lincoln did not want to have it, as I said, anything that could be construed as a formal recognition of the Confederacy.

CONAN: And there was this strange formula that developed. If you had a major general in prison on your side, you could exchange it for a number of other people - lives were worked out in proportion.

Mr. WERT: Yes they were. If you were a general, and of course that was the highest rank, just general, and none were captured, but if a general was captured, he was worth 46 privates. If a major general was captured, he was worth 40, brigadier general 20, and then it went down to colonel, it went down finally to a sergeant or a corporal, an NCO who was worth two privates. And this is the arrangement they've made.

CONAN: Sergeants would be outraged. Eventually, this program collapsed. How come?

Mr. WERT: It collapsed for a number of reasons. But the critical reason occurred after the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln signed on January 1st, 1863, which with the proclamation, allowed the North to recruit and enlist African-Americans. I imagine many listeners are familiar with the famous 54th Massachusetts...

CONAN: In the film "Glory," yes.

Mr. WERT: In the film "Glory." But in fact, most of the African-Americans would serve in what are called United States Colored Troops units, and altogether somewhere like 180,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army. Well, of course, the Confederacy was outraged by this, and the congress passed a law, Confederate Congress, that in all the colored troop units as they were called, were officered by white men, and so Confederate Congress made these officers, if captured, were treated as criminals, and that they refused to exchange black soldiers that were captured, you know, they simply won't do this. So the Lincoln government in turn could not accept this or tolerate this. And so these prisoners' exchanges started to slow down.

It has always been an uneven thing. They were plagued by paperwork, which is not surprising, and things like that. And so finally then, in the spring of 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant was made general and chief of all the Union forces, Grant was adverse to this. And he finally refused or he stopped the prisoner exchange program arguing that for every Confederate prisoner exchanged, they will be returned to the ranks and they will fight against, you know, the Union forces again.

CONAN: And if it was a battle of attrition, these exchanges would favor the South.

Mr. WERT: Absolutely. And Grant knew that they had a much larger manpower population in which...

CONAN: In the North?

Mr. WERT: Yes. And so, he could draw from that when the Confederacy was limited.

CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there.


CONAN: Jeffry Wert, an historian and author specializing in the American Civil War. "Cavalryman of The Lost Cause" is his upcoming book. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Stay with us.

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