Syrian Prisoner Exchange: A Worthy Deal, but a Crooked Path

Haaretz Editorial
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Israeli soldiers carry the coffin with the remains of Zachary Baumel during his funeral at the Mt. Herzel military cemetery in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 4, 2019.
Israeli soldiers carry the coffin with the remains of Zachary Baumel during his funeral at the Mt. Herzel military cemetery in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 4, 2019.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP
Haaretz Editorial

The prime minister’s decision to release two Syrian prisoners in exchange for the remains of soldier Zachary Baumel was a worthy one.

Prisoner exchanges, including the retrieval of soldiers’ and civilians’ remains, are important humanitarian deeds. We can only wish that a similar deal will come through for the Katz and Feldman families so that they may also receive the remains of their sons, Yehuda and Zvi, who were killed in the Sultan Yacoub battle, and the same for the Oron, Shaul, Mengistu and Al-Sayed families whose sons, both the dead and the living, are in Hamas’ hands.

>> By releasing Syrian prisoners, Israel signals Hamas it can easily be pressured | Analysis

The usual public controversy – and similarly the heated exchanges among government officials – depicts prisoner exchanges as a surrender to terrorism or to the demands of enemy nations. This makes for hollow background noise that turns the suffering of these families into political weaponry in the guise of nationalism, with each side trying to win something that isn’t theirs.

Israel has a commitment to return all prisoners of war and missing people, dead or alive, whether they are held by an enemy country or a terrorist organization. This is the responsibility of a country toward its soldiers and citizens. The question of the price is always subject to negotiation, but setting “red lines” that must not be crossed during such negotiations should be done flexibly enough to permit the government to carry out exchanges as a humanitarian act or as a part of diplomatic negotiations.

At the same time, it seems that Netanyahu used his power and authority to present the deal in a way that would serve his political goals. About two weeks before the election it was claimed that Baumel’s remains had been found and that they were being returned to Israel – which became an important part of the Likud campaign. Then, two weeks after the election, once the goals were achieved, it turns out suddenly that there’s a price to pay for the return of these remains. The differing versions of the deal emit a strong scent of election propaganda.

The fact that cabinet members were not updated about the gesture and that a “bypass the government route” was chosen – with the permission of the state attorney general and with the president being informed – raises concerns that the election was a part of Netanyahu’s considerations, and that he preferred to minimize the gesture in order to avert any possible criticism.

One must object to the way in which the decision was made and implemented. But the decision itself is the only one that can preserve the hopes of the bereaved families who wish for continued Syrian and Russian cooperation on behalf of their dear ones, and the hopes of the families of those missing in Gaza. “A goodwill gesture,” which doesn’t depend on any political or military price, is a humanitarian formula worthy of implementation on all fronts.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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