Monday, October 17, 2011

Is 1027:1 A Racist Ratio?

A well known song in Israel by the hip-hop group Hadag Nachash goes "I to am like all the Jews, concerned with numbers 24/7." This week, that number is 1027, the total number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed in exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit tomorrow morning. This week's rigorous debate over the prisoner release in Israel comes at the culmination of over five years of discourse over the issue. No point of consensus has yet been reached, and its unlikely such consensus will arrive.

Outside of Israel, including here in Washington, there are those who have made the argument that the deal is indicative of a double-standard on Israel's part. The argument is that Israel devalues Palestinian life as evidenced by the 1027:1 ratio of prisoners involved in the swap. For a single Israeli life, Israel is willing to trade 1027 Palestinian lives, a gaping disparity between its valuation of the two sides of the equation. This argument is controversial but also powerful. More importantly, it raises the question of morality in policymaking, an often-ignored but important facet of the field.


In some ways, the argument is valid. States do consistently value the lives of their own citizens over the lives of non-citizens. Analysts may attribute racial or cultural differences to the disparity, and such attributions may be legitimate. Israel's valuation of Israeli life above Palestinian life is evident in the conditions imposed on Palestinians through land blockades on the Gaza Strip, checkpoints and arbitrary detention in the West Bank, and disregard for historical land claims along the route of the Separation Barrier.

But does this valuation somehow impugn the legitimacy of the prisoner swap scheduled for tomorrow? It's unclear that it doesn't, but it's also unclear that it does.

Firstly, those in the Palestinian leadership making the argument are themselves benefitting from the prisoner release. This point does not undermine the internal validity of the argument. However, it does undermine the credibility of some of its major advocates. It would be akin to someone attending a protest on oil dependence driving an SUV 6 hours to get there. The action alone doesn't delegitimize the argument but it should call into question the credibility of the actor making it.

Secondly, the argument implies that the morally superior decision for Israel would have been not to negotiate at all. Since negotiating a 1027:1 prisoner swap devalues Palestinian life, the argument implies that given Israel's choice between the asymmetric 1027:1 or the symmetric 0:0, the latter would be the optimal (more moral) choice. It bears mention that this has in fact been Israel's choice for the past five years. Thus, while the final terms may be asymmetrical, they are hardly the result of spurious action by Israel. 1027 after over 5 years of political ramifications is not the same as 1027 a week after the kidnapping. Truly demonstrating the swap is immoral requires accounting for many other variables over the 5-plus year period. If the swap is immoral, it is not only on these grounds.

Finally, one must keep in mind that policy is ultimately about tradeoffs. At the end of the day, the Israeli government valued annulling the liability of an Israeli soldier and saving his life over the release of 1027 prisoners. The move, while controversial, will likely benefit PM Netanyahu, his government, the Israeli state, and the Israeli people. No policy advisor in any country in the world would have argued that Cpl. Shalit should not be brought back on the grounds that it was immoral to devalue the lives of Palestinian prisoners by releasing so many of them. To point out the gaping disparity may be legitimate but it is hardly useful from a policymaking standpoint.


In consideration of such controversial and sensitive questions, it is important to keep an open mind. While each of the above points are salient, none ultimately undermines the original argument entirely. Ultimately, such considerations usually brood only more questions. Given Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories, is the prisoner swap the best example of a double-standard with regards to Palestinians? Would any country in the world have acted more morally? Does the swap say more about Israel or about Hamas?

To be continued(?)

1 comment:

  1. Hold your horses. How could anyone think that Israel is devaluing Palestinian life in this deal? The Palestinians simply got the best deal they could. If Israel COULD have only given away one Palestinian prisoner in exchange for Shalit, they WOULD have instantly!

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