Israel’s Dangerous Precedent in Syria

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Israeli soldiers look towards Syria across the border from Mount Bental.
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be delighted if the bones of Israeli spy Eli Cohen were brought to Israel from Syria for burial before next week’s election. Netanyahu is certain that such a move, which has so far eluded him and been repeatedly touted with deceptive hints, would boost his showing at the polls. To this end, the premier is relying on assistance from Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Military Intelligence and Yaron Blum, the government’s negotiator for the return of POWs and MIAs.

But the real key person here is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He alone can exert the necessary influence – assuming Syrian President Bashar Assad actually knows where the remains of Cohen are hidden. (Cohen was hung and buried in an unknown grave in Damascus in 1965.) And this may explain why Netanyahu agreed to the questionable deal for the return in February of the Israeli woman, D., who illegally crossed into Syria (and has since been indicted in Israel).

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That deal set at least two precedents; It marks the first time an Israeli government agreed to pay ransom for a civilian who crossed the border of their own free will. In the past, the government agreed in the 1980s to pay tens of millions of dollars in cash – or in goods such as oil – for the release of Ron Arad. Unfortunately, the Israel Air Force navigator was never found; he most probably died in captivity in Lebanon and no ransom was paid.

The state also is also duty bound to pay ransom for soldiers who have fallen into captivity. But there is no justification to use taxpayer money for civilians, surely not for someone whose own actions got them into that predicament.

Even Western countries, as well as Arab countries, that previously paid ransoms to free citizens held by terrorist organizations or criminal gangs in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan or South America, conditioned such payment on the hostage having been abducted or held against their will, and not having voluntarily crossed to the other side.

The cost of the ransom for the Israeli woman in question is $1 million. It is supposed to be paid to the Russian company that is manufacturing the Sputnik vaccine against COVID-19 – meaning that Israel will help vaccinate the Syrian Army, the Syrian intelligence services and associates of the Assad regime.

The second precedent being set here is that this is the first time the Israel Police and State Prosecutor’s Office are insisting that the woman’s name and picture not be published. A court-approved gag order was issued for this purpose, even after the investigation concluded. Since the 1950s, the name of every Israeli civilian or soldier who was freed from incarceration or captivity in an enemy country or from the hands of a terrorist organization has been published. For example, in the mid-1950s, Shlomo (Mirsky) Ben-Yehuda, a civilian who crossed the border into Syria and was released in an exchange deal. In 1961, Mordechai Louk (“The Man in the Suitcase”) snuck into the Gaza Strip of his own volition. In 2004, businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum voluntarily traveled to Abu Dhabi to clinch a drug deal, was abducted there by Hezbollah and transferred to Lebanon. In hundreds of other cases, too, the names of Israelis who have crossed borders and infiltrated enemy states were published.

D.’s case, along with others in the past, raise questions that pose serious challenges for Israel’s governments. What are the limits of the state’s responsibility vis-a-vis its citizens? Does it owe civilians the same efforts it would invest on behalf of soldiers or anyone else sent on missions in its service? Are civilians who break the law entitled to expect the government to work for their release – and should it do so, does it not also have a duty to punish them? Regardless of whether such individuals are charged with any offense, should the government demand compensation for the financial damage they caused?

One of the more serious attempts to discuss these questions occurred in 2008, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the establishment of a commission to that end, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar. This came in wake of harsh public criticism about several prisoner swaps, primarily the one involving Tannenbaum. In that outrageous deal, Ariel Sharon’s government agreed to free 400 terrorists in exchange for the businessman – who, as a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, had reached the rank of colonel – and the bodies of three IDF combat soldiers. When the panel completed its work in 2012, the Netanyahu government discussed its report, but did not adopt its recommendations.

Although the commission’s report is classified and never made public, some information about it has leaked. It talks about priorities and proportionality. It makes a distinction between civilians and soldiers, declaring that the government’s position and obligations should be determined on the basis of four scenarios, in descending order of importance: whether it involves a soldier captured during a military operation; an Israeli captured as a result of a terrorist operation; a civilian who mistakenly crossed the border and was arrested; or a civilian who knowingly and willingly crossed the border.

In each of these categories, the price Israel should pay must be proportionate, according to the Shamgar report. A captured or abducted soldier would be released for a small number of prisoners and bodies of enemy soldiers. A soldier’s body would be brought back in return for the release of an enemy soldier’s body, or a single prisoner. It’s clear, therefore, that in exchange for the return of civilians, especially civilians who voluntarily crossed the lines, the price should be even lower.

A courageous government must set clear red lines: Someone who is mentally stable and voluntarily crosses into enemy territory is not automatically entitled to have the state come to their rescue. But with a government like the current one that is inept at handling fateful issues like the coronavirus pandemic, the Iranian nuclear program, negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, or an arrangement with Hamas that would facilitate the return of the bodies of the two soldiers (and of the two civilians who crossed into Gaza on their own) – it is pointless to expect it adopt a rational policy concerning POWs, MIAs and Israelis who voluntarily cross into enemy territory.

With decisions being made at a whim, without any thorough, serious discussion, D.’s case probably won’t be the last of its kind, and the price Israel is paying for it sets a precedent for the much higher price it will pay in the future.

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