Bargaining With The Devil

At Center for Israel Studies Lecture, Dr. Rivka Weill Offers Strategy for Negotiating With Terrorists

On March 30, the Joseph and Faye Glatt Program on Israel and the Rule of Law at YU’s Center for Israel Studies hosted Dr. Rivka Weill, who delivered a lecture titled “Bargaining With the Devil: Strategies to Combat Terrorist Kidnapping” on the Wilf Campus. Weill, who serves as Israel Institute Visiting Professor at YU and associate professor at the Radzyner School of Law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah, argued that Israel may increase its negotiating power against terrorist kidnappers by introducing a bicameral, bipartisan decision-making structure for approving prisoner exchange deals.

Weill began the lecture by recounting the history of terrorist kidnappings against Israelis, from the hijacking of Israeli commercial airplanes in the 1960’s to the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit in 2006. While the passengers on the 1960’s El Al flight were exchanged for convicted Arab prisoners at a 1:1 ratio, Shalit was exchanged for over 1,000 convicted Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons, including many terrorists with Israeli blood on their hands.

Dr. Rivka Weill

“Each time when kidnapping occurs Israeli society has to ask itself anew, how do we respond?” said Weill, noting that Israel has undergone three wars or military operations to deal with the issue of terrorist kidnappings. “The threat is current, it is imminent, it is there. As the [Israeli] soldiers were going through the [Gaza] tunnels in the last military operations they were finding military uniforms and tranquilizers that were intended to be used in kidnap operations. This is a real strategic threat to the Israeli population.”

Weill explained that when a kidnapping occurs, Israeli society is thrown into turmoil. The country has a strong social ethos of protecting its soldiers, plus Israeli politicians come under heavy pressure, particularly from the victim’s family, to do whatever it takes to negotiate the release the kidnapped individual; psychologically, it is easier to relate to the story of one current victim than the many faceless, nameless potential victims who may be killed by released terrorists.

According to Weill, recommendations for “content-based” restrictions on negotiation—such as statements about a cap on the number of criminals who will be released or a blanket refusal to release prisoners with blood on their hands—are ineffective, because terrorist kidnappers can simply refuse the deal and let pressure mount on Israeli decision-makers to accede to ever-higher demands. Contrary to popular belief, Israel does not currently have an official policy with regard to negotiating with terrorists, and the power to approve exchange deals lies largely with the prime minister.

To increase the country’s negotiating power, Weill argued that Israel should introduce a system that requires any deal to be approved “by an absolute majority” of government members. “Only the final outcome will be known to the public, but not the positions of the various members of the government,” said Weill, so that politicians do not come under undue emotional pressure from families to ratify or not ratify the deal. “This bicameral process already exists in the United States,” said Weill. “It’s harder to reach a transaction, but you get better transactions.”

Weill also argued that the public should be made aware when a kidnap victim is presumed dead, that the media should give equal coverage to the families of kidnap victims and the victims of terrorists set to be released in any exchange deal and that Israel’s system of prisoner release via “collective pardon” should be done away with; all releases should be conditional, so that if prisoners return to terrorism they return to jail to serve out their original sentences, rather than needing a new conviction. (The latter recommendation has begun to be implemented in the wake of the Shalit deal). “We can reduce the bargaining power, and reduce the incentive to kidnap, while taking into account that there is a person being held in captivity,” Weill stated.

In his introductory remarks, Dr. Steven Fine, Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director of CIS, noted the importance of Israel studies disciplines to understanding modern Jewish life, and acknowledged the role of the Glatt Program in bringing world-class Israel studies scholars to YU. “Everything changed [in Jewish society] with emancipation and changed again with the formation of the State of Israel,” said Fine. “We at YU have a voice and an expertise to bring to this conversation and that’s why the Glatt Program is so important to us.”