Renounce the Deal?

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‘The agreement the United States made with Iran for return of the hostages has the same moral standing as an agreement made with a kidnapper, that is to say none at all. This is not said in criticism of the Carter administration, which made the deal to save the hostages’ lives. But now that the hostages are free, President Reagan should examine the agreement carefully and if its unfulfilled parts do not, on balance, benefit American interests, there should be no hesitation in renouncing it.’

* * *

That is how the Wall Street Journal began one of the most controversial newspaper editorials in American history. The date was January 21, 1981, the second day of the Reagan presidency. It ran under the headline “Renounce the Deal.” The reference was to the deal the Carter administration struck to free the last 52 of the American hostages who had been held for the last 444 days by the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

It was a complex pact, including various provisions related to Iran’s financial assets. It blocked the Americans who’d been held hostage from suing Iran in American courts. That was one of the features that could easily have been abrogated (and, in any event, may have been unconstitutional*). By the time the Journal issued the editorial, the hostages were out of Iran, and the Journal was making the point that Reagan was under no obligation.

We’ve been thinking of that editorial in the wake of the freeing of Sergeant Gilad Shalit of Israel under an agreement extorted by Hamas. Like the Journal 30 years ago, we don’t question the integrity, the judgment, the patriotism, the intentions, the work, or the courage of the negotiators and political leaders who reached the agreement. The Israelis were seeking to save the life of a soldier who had been kidnapped from soil that even the United Nations agrees belongs to Israel.

The Israelis were animated by the country’s religion and values, which counsel “choose life” and place an enormous priority on freeing prisoners and emboldened the country to take great risks. The risks it took in this case are enormous, just based on the prisoners who have already gone back. Even partisans of the agreement acknowledge the risks that some of the hundreds of convicted terrorists who have already gone back are likely to return to the terrorist war against the Jewish state.

We wouldn’t want to be — and aren’t — counseling Israel to renounce the deal now that Sergeant Shalit has been saved. Nor do we suggest that Israel is considering renouncing the deal; we haven’t heard that it is. Only Israel, in any event, can decide these matters. And the stakes are high. Although 477 Hamas terrorists held by Israel have been released, reports are that another 550 are due to be released in coming months.

What we are counseling is that Israel has a free hand. A spokesman of Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, is being quoted by the New York Times as warning Israel against “maneuvering or playing with any article of the agreement.” But that is not a sentiment for America to echo. It would be wrong to pressure Israel to stick by the deal. Or criticize it if it doesn’t. Particularly because it’s not yet entirely clear what all the elements of the agreement are.

There are reports — cited in Caroline Glick’s most recent column in the Jerusalem Post, for example — that Israel agreed “to give safe passage to Hamas’s leaders decamping to Egypt.” The theory seems to be that the Hamas terror chiefs are suddenly uncomfortable at Syria now that the regime in Damascus is in open war with the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalists there.

We’re not so concerned with any of the particulars. The point here is that if Israel were to renounce any further obligations, it would be — as the Wall Street Journal pointed out that President Reagan was — well within its rights. The kidnapping of Sergeant Shalit was an act of extortion. And an agreement extracted from someone with a gun to his head is not an agreement at all. Israel deserves support in whatever decision it makes in respect to the so-called agreement from here on out. It has the same free hand that America had 30 years ago.


* When Congress went on to authorize Americans to sue terrorist nations, the Clinton administration paid the first judgments that were handed down against Iran.

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