JERUSALEM — The prisoner exchange that saw U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl swapped for five Taliban commanders is of more than passing interest in Israel, where trading enemy combatants for Israeli soldiers is a long and controversial tradition.
The trades made by Israel have been far more lopsided than the deal struck by the Obama administration this week. The most famous swap, in 2011, involved the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian militants in exchange for one Israeli corporal.
And like Obama’s deal with the Taliban, the Israelis have made trades with all sorts of sworn enemies, including groups labeled terrorists, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It has traded hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned for killing Israeli civilians.
Over the past three decades, Israel has released about 8,000 detainees in exchange for their own soldiers and others, according to a tally by the Reuters news service.
Some examples, from Reuters:
May 1985 — Israel releases 1,150 Arab prisoners in exchange for three Israel Defense Forces soldiers held by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. The deal took almost nine months to negotiate.
June-July 1985 — Israel frees 331 Lebanese Shiite detainees. Shiite leaders say the detainees' freedom was guaranteed in exchange for the return of 39 foreign passengers hijacked on an American TWA airliner to Beirut. Israel denies a connection.
July 1996 — Hezbollah and Israel carry out a German-brokered swap in which the bodies of 123 terrorists are returned to Lebanon in exchange for the remains of two IDF soldiers.
One of the most sensitive and complex exchanges took place in 2011, when Israel made a deal — through intermediaries — with Hamas to trade 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Shalit had been captured after his tank was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade along the Gaza border in 2006.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist, conducted some of the back-channel negotiations with the Hamas leadership that led to Shalit’s release. He published a book last year about his experiences titled “The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas.”
In an interview, Baskin noted that Israelis have had a long history with prisoner swaps and that although they are often controversial, debated and condemned, the society — and, eventually, the political leadership — broadly supports them.
“In Israel, there is no draft. It is a people’s army. The whole society is the army. My father, myself, my brothers, my sons. We all served in the army. We belong to the army, and the army belongs to us. There is no separation,” Baskin said.“And so we have an unwritten covenant: We don’t leave anyone behind.”
Of course, in the case of Shalit, he was left behind for five years and four months as negotiations dragged on.
Israel, like the United States, prides itself on never negotiating with terrorists, Baskin said. But, obviously, both countries deal with terrorists (or militants or enemies) regularly. Israel officially does so through third parties. In the case of Shalit, Turkey and Egypt played important roles.
Baskin said there are many similarities between the reactions to the Shalit and Bergdahl exchanges, including allegations hurled at both that their own actions led to their capture and assertions that their leaders paid too high a price for their return.