The news of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s release caught Noam Shalit, father of Israel’s most famous prisoner of war, while he was visiting America.
Listening to the media reports about the prisoner swap that freed Bergdahl from years of captivity by Afghanistan’s Taliban, Shalit was struck by the similarities between the case of the soldier from Idaho and that of his son, Gilad Shalit.
“The whole situation of a POW in the hands of a terror organization was just the same,” the elder Shalit told the Forward. Some parallels are obvious: Both were held for five years by designated terror groups, and in both cases, their governments ended up paying hefty prices in prisoner swap deals that sparked fierce national debate.
In Gilad Shalit’s case, the price was 1,027 security prisoners, including 280 deemed to have been directly involved in killing Israelis. To liberate Bergdahl, the United States freed five senior commanders of the Afghan Taliban (though the government of Qatar has promised to keep them under wraps there for one year).
But despite the fact that both soldiers also faced criticism of their conduct after they were freed, one striking difference stands out: the Israeli public’s support for such deals, no matter how lopsided — and no matter what the circumstances of the Israeli’s capture.
In the days following the massive release of security prisoners that brought Gilad Shalit to freedom in 2011, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that almost 78% of those surveyed supported the deal, to varying degrees.
That kind of support is a given in Israel, almost regardless of the character of the prisoner involved. Witness the case of Elchanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman and colonel in the army reserve whom Hezbollah, a government-designated terrorist group, drew to Dubai on the pretext of concluding a huge illegal drug deal. Hezbollah abducted him from there to Lebanon. In January 2004, more than three years after his capture, Israel obtained his freedom (and the remains of two dead soldiers) by releasing 435 security prisoners, including two senior Hezbollah officials.
The circumstances of Tannenbaum’s capture led many in Israel to oppose the swap. The government cabinet approved the deal by a margin of just one vote. But an IDI poll taken shortly afterward showed that 63% of the public supported the exchange. Only 29% opposed it.
Influenced by the reported circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture, American public reaction to his release could not be more different. A photo of Bergdahl on the cover of Time magazine blared the message in bold letters under his image: “Was He Worth It?”