The enemy is cynically using the Jewish culture of redeeming captives. Even though the previous government under Ehud Olmert did not cave in to Hamas' demands in the end, the government's hysterical conduct in its last weeks regarding the Shalit affair showed the extent to which this weapon has been effective against Israeli society.
The anxiety about the abduction of soldiers reached its peak during Operation Cast Lead, when the commander of the Golani Brigade's Battalion 51 told his soldiers that they had to avoid being taken captive at the price of endangering their lives. This referred not only to the price for freeing a captive, but also - and perhaps mainly - to the potential damage to the Israeli public's fortitude. This damage is magnified when public discourse on the matter is unrestrained. Therefore, we have to examine if there are ways to minimize the damage that will help the state deal with such scenarios.
In Israel, government decisions do not create binding norms of governance, and negotiations for releasing captives are conducted from a built-in weakness. It is clear to the enemy that the pressure the people apply will ultimately cause the Israeli government to pay a high price for a release, after haggling in the Persian bazaar to grind down the public's nerves. The enemy achieves two things by prolonging the negotiations: wearing down the public's nerves and a better payoff. The best way to neutralize these aims is determining norms of governance, enforced by legislation in the Knesset.
We have to anchor in legislation a framework for conducting negotiations for freeing captives, including the maximum price Israel will pay. This has two big advantages even though it will entail complex legislation: It will restrain public discourse when there is an abduction, and will relieve the pressure put on the government. It is possible this legislation will gradually reduce the motivation to use abductions as weapons.
This legislation should not be discussed under the pressure of events; it should only apply to future events. In this way, the debate accompanying the legislative process will focus on issues and principles unconnected to the influence of pressure groups. It has also been suggested that the law be passed by a special majority. Although this majority would not render the law immune from pressures to change it, it would serve as an additional restraining element.
The legislative process would probably not be simple and quick. Nevertheless, focusing the discussion on matters of principle might allow many groups in Israeli society to support the idea. This process should start as soon as possible. Israel would thus be better prepared to deal with abductions, return to its origins and adhere to the principle that it will not submit to extortion through terror. The lack of this principle is currently encouraging the enemy.
The writer is head of the military research program at the Institute for National Security Studies.