Analysis / Life, Death and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Two or three weeks ago, around the anniversary of the kidnapping of the three soldiers to Lebanon, the intelligence community acquired new details about their fate.

Two or three weeks ago, around the anniversary of the kidnapping of the three soldiers to Lebanon, the intelligence community acquired new details about their fate. The details didn't completely change the picture from what was known already on October 7, 2000, the day after the kidnapping, but they filled in some missing pieces of that picture.

Intelligence experts from the Mossad and Military Intelligence passed the information on to Military Intelligence Commander Maj. Gen Amos Malka, Research Division chief Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser and head of the department for prisoners and MIAs, Col. Moshe Zarka. In a series of internal discussions, the credibility of the information was examined as well as its influence on the overall picture. The new data was that "extra something" which turns circumstantial evidence into decisive evidence. The matter was handed over to Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz.

Military law experts would have seen in the intelligence mosaic - which was shown in nearly all its entirety to two top officers in the Manpower Division, though the sources of the information were kept secret - enough to go to work and quickly help put an end to that part of the families' suffering over the ongoing uncertainty.

But the problem wasn't the judgment of the Judge Advocate General but that of the army's chief rabbi. Last year, Mofaz insisted on fighting then-defense minister Ehud Barak to promote Lt. Col. Yisrael Weiss two ranks and give him the job as chief rabbi. As a brigadier general, Weiss did not repay Mofaz with any favors.

Within a few weeks, Weiss has embarrassed the army twice. First, when he disrupted air force planes to send a plane to the Black Sea on a Saturday to help with the recovery of the crashed Sibir Airways plane, and second, when he decided he would need two weeks to delve into the halakhic problems involved in changing the status of the missing three soldiers to "killed in the field without a final resting spot."

Weiss will have a difficult time filling two weeks before handing down his decision, when everyone will be bothering him until he's convinced and decides. Weiss' pace puts the IDF into a twilight zone of sorts, where it's very hot, and also a little cold, as it announces there's a "high probability" that the three are dead, but with a "slight doubt."

There's a world of difference between the assumption that refers to the probability and a final finding that they are indeed dead. The working assumption is important for the decision to stop searching, especially in cases in which soldiers are missing in action from air and naval disasters, from collapsing buildings or from avalanches of dirt or snow.

The final determination has far-reaching human and legal significance, and the decision makers prefer to avoid it. There are the conditions of negotiation in the midst of psychological warfare, deception and fraud with the Hezbollah; families' sensitivities and their accessibility to the decision makers; curious journalists won't take no comment for an answer; in short, hiding the the significance of the new information was not realistic.

In game theory there's the "prisoners' dilemma." It's the problem of every person locked up in a group - how to behave. The dilemma is to betray comrades and save one's skin or keep silent and get away with a tolerable punishment - only if nobody else betrays the group.

Israeli governments have been facing a state version of that dilemma - the dilemma of the POWs. It's a complex deliberation with many layers. First there is the matter of the intensity of the negotiations - vocal demands to return the prisoners raises the price that has to be paid for them, but demonstrative silence raises concerns (especially among the prisoners' families) that they've been neglected. Secondly, there's the price being demanded - money, prisoner releases and political concessions. Third, there's the actual content of the deal - redeeming prisoners, handing over bodies or only information about their identity and condition.

Entebbe is a good example of a successful military action; the release of Nachshon Waxman, the opposite. In earlier hostage-taking events, like the hijacking of an El Al plane to Algeria in July 1968, the problematics were resolved relatively easily. After a military option (involving the air force, navy and Sayeret Matkal) was ruled out as too problematic, the government gave in to the hijackers demands. From Israel's point of view, the hijacking could have been a lot more complicated, expensive or both. Two senior officers, then-Maj. Gen Ariel Sharon and Col. Avraham Tamir, were supposed to have been on the plane, but they stayed overnight in Paris to go to a nightclub, thus missing the flight and the hijacking.

At the end of the Yom Kippur War, Syria successfully leveraged Israeli public opinion, which identified with the anxiety of the families of the missing soldiers, and won concessions on the cease-fire lines in exchange for a list of prisoners and their freedom. Thus the painful choice was between retreating in exchange for bringing the boys home over the border that was set by the blood of other boys.

These are all matters of life and death, and so is the matter of gathering the information. Since the failure of solving the Ron Arad mystery, Israeli intelligence has appeared impotent in the face of the walls of secrecy around zealous underground groups like Hezbollah. That is not a positive image, and sometimes it is enough to close mouths that otherwise would be open if the view held that Israel knows everything. But there is also an advantage: It can create a certain complacency on the part of the opponent. Under the cover of that complacency, cracks can be found, and through them, vital information can be sent for deterrence, to prevent terror and war - as long as those who analyze the intelligence and the leadership that gets the information from them, know how to keep their mouths shut.

Even though the statement yesterday about the three dead soldiers was carefully worded, in coordination with the intelligence professionals who are far more familiar with the methods and sources than the spokesmen, it could motivate Hassan Nasrallah to comb his organization looking for leaks. And that too is one of the prisoner dilemmas, for a country worried about the fate of every one of its soldiers. The Americans, by comparison, are still missing some 2,200 soldiers from Vietnam and 126 pilots and other fighters who disappeared on missions in the Soviet Union and China during the cold war.