I have covered Israeli hostage and M.I.A. cases for more than 15 years, including the covert ways in which Israel’s powerful espionage agencies operate to bring soldiers home alive or dead. Over that time, the issue has come to dominate public discourse to a degree that no one could have predicted. Israeli society’s inability to tolerate even a single soldier held in captivity results in popular movements that have tremendous impact on strategic decisions made by the government. The issue has become a generator of history rather than an outcome of it.

Why this is the case is difficult to say, because it requires a plumbing of the Israeli psyche. Certainly, part of it has to do with a Jewish tradition that sanctifies life, and with the necessity for Jews of a proper burial. And part, too, is rooted in the tradition expressed by Maimonides, that there is no greater religious duty than the redemption of prisoners — a powerful idea in a country whose citizens are required to be soldiers. As Noam Shalit emphasized, there is an “unwritten contract” between the government and its soldiers.