How to Free Captives

An enormous, consuming envy should take hold of anyone who witnessed the release of the 15 British soldiers from Iranian incarceration.

An enormous, consuming envy should take hold of anyone who witnessed the release of the 15 British soldiers from Iranian incarceration. This envy is stirred by the cold logic of a large and powerful country like Britain, which decided that the liberty of 15 of its soldiers was more important than any considerations of prestige or any threat. And of course, the soldiers' liberty was considered more important than a pointless war that Britain could have launched, together with the United States.

Britain decided it was a moment when the state must serve its soldiers and that its identity, honor and strength would not be damaged if it invested every diplomatic effort, including a commitment not to violate Iran's borders, before resorting to military measures. Britain also did not hesitate to spoil another game of prestige for Israel when it instructed its consul general, Richard Makepeace, to meet with the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in an effort to free the journalist Alan Johnston, who is being held by a gang in Gaza.

Political or diplomatic principles, from Britain's perspective, are only road signs; they must be derived from values. A state that turns its captives or hostages into the symbol of its power, and sees any concession as undermining its prestige, is a dogmatic state that has forgotten its purpose. This type of argumentation could not have been accepted in Israel, certainly not in the summer of 2006. Israel first goes to war and then conducts negotiations. But suddenly Britain comes and demonstrates a style of polished and unfamiliar policy that poses a large question mark to such a war: It is possible to conduct negotiations and perhaps make it unnecessary to go to war.

There are certainly those who argue that Iran surrendered to pressure and threats, that it realized it was not worthwhile to generate a major war over such an incident and that this explains its readiness to release the soldiers. At the same time, it is also possible to wonder: Iran knew that international pressure would come, and perhaps even sought this to demonstrate "moderation." More ridiculous is the claim that Iran arrested the British soldiers as part of the cultural war of "Satanic Islam." And who "abducted" the five Iranians at Irbil and several Iranian citizens in Baghdad? Who abducted Lebanese citizens to Israel? Or Afghani citizens to Guantanamo? "The culture of the West"? Iran arrested the British soldiers for political reasons and released them for political reasons.

But Iran is not the point here, it is the lesson. How did Britain understand what Israel was unable to understand in July 2006? After all, that war was entirely hung upon the weak hook of freeing the two captured soldiers, and later developed into a complete hanger of explanations, from destroying Hezbollah's infrastructure to the aspiration to liquidate Hassan Nasrallah. These were good and justified reasons, no fewer than the reasons for Britain to launch a war against Iran last week, or the reasons behind the tragedy generated by the war in Iraq.

But unlike Britain's approach, within days the Israeli captives moved to the bottom of the list of reasons for the war in Lebanon. More esteemed reasons were hastily attached to the war. Now Israel's captives in Lebanon are no longer able to propel the Israeli government into action, just as Gilad Shalit is unsuccessful in causing it to do what the government of Britain is prepared to do for one of its citizens - a journalist, not a soldier.

True, Britain cannot send battalions to Gaza to fight for his release, but it also understands what Israel refuses to understand: The captives and prisoners of a country perhaps "disturb" its prestige, but negotiating their release does not damage the state's power. Their release sometimes requires a high price, but in the case of Israel vis-a-vis Hezbollah or the Palestinian Authority, the price is in identical coinage: captives in exchange for prisoners and detainees, and not in mutual national recognition, not in a withdrawal from the territories, and not even in a budget increase for hospitals. Only the exchange of people. And a bit of prestige.