You may have seen the 1996 movie Ransom starring Mel Gibson playing Tom Mullen. Tom’s son is kidnapped and suspecting that even if he pays the ransom his son will be killed he gives the kidnappers two options. Return his son and that will be the end of the matter. Alternatively, if his son is harmed he will offer a very large reward to whoever who will bring the kidnappers to justice. Or something like that. There is no third option where he pays any ransom demand. As you can imagine, no-one, most particularly his wife, agrees with his strategy.
It’s the movies, it works out fine. The taking by Iran of American embassy hostages in November 1979 is a real life example. They were released minutes after President Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981. A coincidence? Republicans don’t think so. Democrats do. Me, I generally don’t believe in coincidences. It couldn’t have done any harm in having a tough-talking President who before his inauguration repudiated paying a ransom to “barbarians.”
Both the movie and the Iranian hostage situation were far simpler in construct than the situation facing Israel. Tom Mullen simply wanted his son freed; and America, the hostages. Israel wants hostages freed and the war won against those who took them. And in circumstances in which Hamas terrorists and the Geneva Convention occupy different solar systems.
Obviously Israel would like to achieve both of its objectives. But, at times, one or other must be given priority? For example, how extensively does Israel flood or bomb tunnels knowing that it might kill hostages? Dilemmas of this kind must arise all of the time. Superman (1978) managed to thwart Lex Luthor’s scheme of coincidentally sending nuclear-armed missiles to two places – distant from each other. But that’s Superman for you.
I have been struck by interviews I’ve seen of family members of the hostages and by some Israeli street demonstrations. The tenor of their view seems to be that the freeing of hostages should be prioritised over winning the war. One family member after meeting with Netanyahu was reported as saying that he had agreed that freeing hostages was the top priority. Netanyahu may have said this for compassionate and political reasons but he can’t afford to act on it.
My children or parents or siblings or wife have not been captured by Hamas barbarians, so I am not judging the attitude of family members whose loved ones are being held hostage or their supporters. However, it is damaging to national security if the national psyche is attuned to prioritising the freeing of hostages. Imagine how easy it would be to win a conflict against such a nation.
The only winning option is to take the position of Tom Mullen and Reagan, war or no war. And maybe behind the scenes that is what Netanyahu and his government are actually doing. Willing to risk the lives of hostages. Giving priority to winning the war. Perhaps, at the same time, making it clear that releasing the hostages unharmed will count in the favour of Hamas terrorists after the war is won (apart from those complicit in the savagery of October 7). And putting Hamas leaders on notice that they will be on a hit list until all hostages are freed. If there’s another viable option, what is it?