How could Israel think that the life of one captive soldier, Gilad Shalit, is worth releasing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners with the blood of innocents on their hands? More than 100 of the murderers have been serving multiple life sentences for involvement in crimes such as high-casualty suicide bombings—including Nasir Yataima, who has been serving no fewer than 29 life sentences for the 2002 bombing of a Netanya hotel on Passover. How could a prime minister who has made a career of opposing any concessions to terrorism approve of the release of people like that?
The answer is that Gilad Shalit has become the child of every and all Israelis, in a country that places extraordinary value on human life. As one Israeli leader said of the exchange: "My heart says yes, but my head says no."
The case dramatically illustrates the agony of a nation repeatedly denied the peace it seeks. Go back to Israel's decision in 1947 to accept the partition resolution by the U.N. General Assembly. The plan recognized both a "Jewish state" and an "Arab state," and Israel accepted it, even though the original geographic outline of the new Jewish state was distorted and left out much of what the Israelis had hoped for. They recognized that sovereignty and independence justified any compromise, to realize the greater goal of restoring the bond between the Jewish people and the land that is so central to their historical narrative. Had they not so bravely accepted what they regarded as an injustice in 1947 and 1948, the likelihood is that the Jewish state might never have been established.
The Jewish link to this region is historic and undeniable. It is there in the Old Testament and it is underscored by a relatively recent, amazing archaeological discovery. In a burial cave southeast of Jerusalem, archaeologists have found tiny silver scrolls worn as amulets that date back to the 7th century B.C. Inscribed not in Arabic but in paleo-Hebrew are the lines: "May the Lord bless you and keep you; may He make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may He turn His countenance on you and give you peace." As Simon Schama, a Columbia University historian, has written, archaeology has unearthed a verifiable history of the Jewish presence in the land extending from ancient times to this day.
This explains why there was such distress when President Obama gave his first Middle East speech in Cairo. He attributed the existence of Israel to Jewish suffering in modern Europe, particularly the Holocaust, and failed to mention that the Jews had a 3,000-year history in the Promised Land. Did he just not understand the Jewish attachment to Israel or Israel's importance to the Jews as a people? And when the president spoke of the Arabs being displaced by Israel's founding, did he not understand that the Palestinians turned down offers of statehood in 1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008? Defenders of the president's partiality have insisted that the "1967 borders with land swaps" is nothing new. Do they also not understand that by uttering this statement Obama casually adopted a Palestinian goal as U.S. policy?
Does he not understand that there are people who mean what they say when they talk of exterminating Israel and all the Jews? Israel and the Jewish people have stood largely alone in facing existential dangers. That is what has given birth to their preoccupation with security risks, which are intensified by Israel's borders; until 1967 the country was but nine miles wide at its narrowest point, at its mid-section—wherein lies the largest portion of its population—rendering Israelis extremely vulnerable. The president may have forgotten what Israelis cannot fail to remember: that when the Golan Heights was in the hands of Syria before the 1967 war, Jewish villages and farms below were regularly targeted. Remember that and you begin to understand why the Israelis seek some kind of defensive positioning on the high ground running north and south in the middle of the country, and that is the West Bank.