“Do not judge your friend until you reach his place,” (Avos 2:5 ).
Presumably that rule also applies to national leaders. True, every democratically elected leader knows that criticism goes with the job. But that does not free the rest of us from the obligation to acknowledge that the view from “there” – i.e., where decisions are actually made — is very different than from “here” – i.e., where advice is free and responsibility nil.
It is easy to sit in our armchairs yelling that Israel should send 50,000 reservists into Lebanon for a massive ground action or stand outside shul demanding that the IAF level every Lebanese village from which Hizbullah rocket fire emanates. Far more difficult is taking responsibility for the consequences of those decisions.
The toughest decisions are those that offer no good solution, just a choice between two bad outcomes. And they usually depend on numerous guesses about the future and unquantifiable factors.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will soon face such a decision with regard to a prisoner exchange for reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were captured by Hizbullah on July 12. The logic of prisoner exchanges at the end of hostilities would suggest that the two Israeli captives should be exchanged for Hizbullah fighters captured in the recent fighting.
Unfortunately, however, previous prisoner exchanges both with Hizbullah and the Palestinians have established the principle that every Israeli captive – and even the bodies of dead Israelis – is worth hundreds, if not thousands, of our enemies.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah will almost certainly demand the release of Samir Kuntar, who led a Palestinian terror attack on Nahariya Beach in 1979. Kuntar shot a father in front of his four-year-old daughter before crushing her skull with a rifle butt, and caused the mother of the family to accidentally suffocate her other child, a two-year-old girl, as she hid in terror in a crawl space in their apartment.
Kuntar should have been tried, with all due process, and executed. Instead he has been allowed to marry an Israeli Arab woman, who now receives a monthly government stipend, as the wife of a prisoner. Abu Abbas’s 1985 capture of the Achilles Lauro, in which wheel-chair bound American tourist Leon Klinghoffer was killed, was carried out primarily to secure Kuntar’s release.
Not only would Kuntar’s release result in a beast going free, it would constitute a coup for Nasrallah and increase his prestige in Lebanon (from which Kuntar launched his deadly attack) and throughout the Arab world.
Let us say that a deal with Hizbullah over the release of the two captive reservists comes down to the release of Kuntar. If the prime minister opts to release him, he will have to face a woman whose entire family was wiped out by Kuntar. Yet if he decides not to release him, he has to face the families of the two captured reservists and explain to them why he has passed up the best chance likely to arise to secure the release of their husband or sons.
And this decision facing the prime minister is relatively easy compared to that which may soon face him or his successor over Iranian nuclear weapons. Once it becomes clear that international sanctions against Iran will not be implemented or are ineffective and/or that the United States lacks the will to unilaterally strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel faces a life and death decision.
On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about wiping Israel off the map, even at the cost of millions of Iranian lives lost in a nuclear exchange with Israel. He is not the first Iranian leader, going back to Ayatollah Khomeini himself, to publicly state that Iran is ready, willing, and able to absorb casualties of that magnitude in order to destroy Israel. In short, a nuclear Iran poses a clear threat to Israel’s existence.
Nevertheless the threat is only speculative. We can never know for certain whether Iran’s leaders will follow their own religious logic of turning the entire country into a suicide bomber. And that is far from the only thing we do not and cannot know. For instance, there is no assurance that Israel has the capacity to cripple, much less destroy, Iran’s nuclear capacities, which are spread out over dozens of facilities and many of which are deep underground. (Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s assurances that the IAF could do the job do not carry much weight today.)
The decision to attack Iran thus makes the decision to attack the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1982 look like child’s play. The Iraqis lacked the capacity to strike back at Israel. By contrast, any Israeli attack against Iran, whether successful or not, would almost certainly trigger a barrage of Iranian long-range missiles, at a cost of thousands of Israeli lives. (An American attack would likely do the same.)
If we assume that Iran is willing to sacrifice millions of its citizens to destroy Israel, they certainly won’t hesitate to launch missiles at Israel just because hundreds, or thousands of Palestinians or Israeli Arabs might be killed as well. The latter would simply become new martyrs, joining the hundreds of thousands of unarmed child soldiers the Iranians sent into battle against Iraqi tanks.
All really difficult decisions tend to follow a common pattern. They involve a relatively known short-range cost or benefit against a long-range cost of potentially far greater magnitude but whose likelihood is unknowable. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, for instance, the short-range gain was fairly clear: the saving of 24 Jewish lives per year being lost in the security zone.
Against that benefit had to balanced the perception of Israel’s retreat in the Arab world, the impact on its deterrent capacity vis-à-vis both Hizbullah and the Palestinians, how the vacuum in southern Lebanon would be filled, and Israel’s ability to act subsequently if Hizbullah took over the security zone – all highly speculative assessments.
There may be right or wrong answers to these judgments, but often they cannot be known until years later. A leader who focuses only on the number of lives likely to be lost or saved in the immediate future, and ignores the potential long-term consequences of his actions is irresponsible. But one who too easily ignores the immediate and known cost in lives is inhuman.
Each of us should candidly admit that we would not want to make these decisions, and pray to be worthy of leaders whose eyes are opened by Hashem.
Originally published in Mishpacha, September 6.