There is much symbolism in the fact that Ehud Olmert's term as prime minister is ending with a last-minute effort to close a deal with Hamas to allow Gilad Shalit to come home. The soldier's capture, shortly after Olmert's swearing-in, portended a term defined by security crises and wars, not by historic peace overtures.
Olmert never thought it would turn out this way. In the first days after Shalit's abduction, he sounded a belligerent note, determined not to revisit the mistakes of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, who freed hundreds of terrorists to return the disgraced former colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of a handful of captured soldiers from Lebanon.
Back then, Olmert said, "I am not negotiating with Hamas, I haven't negotiated with Hamas and I will not negotiate with Hamas. I won't release prisoners to Hamas in exchange for Corporal Gilad Shalit." Ultimately, Olmert gave in, as had his predecessors, and agreed to hold negotiations with Hamas - and with Hezbollah - and to free terrorists.
Even if an agreement is reached within the next two days, the Shalit affair holds a few important lessons. For one, there is no value in making forceful statements, or attempting to set a "comprehensive policy" on abductions. We all remember what happened last time Israel postponed meeting the enemy's demands: It was during the Ron Arad affair, and the downed navigator was never heard from again.
The events of the past week revealed systemic madness, as ministers of the outgoing administration, headed by Ehud Barak and Shas leader Eli Yishai, seated themselves in the tent erected across from Olmert's residence to protest their very own government. This is not merely an expression of lusting for ratings on the backs of the captive's family, but also a convenient way for politicians to make a U-turn from declarations made in recent memory.
Moreover, these are the rules of life in the Middle East. Abductions have been, and will be, viewed as a legitimate tool in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and a valuable bargaining chip to be cashed in during prisoner exchanges. Both sides have used it - Sharon captured Jordanian soldiers in the 1950s, and Barak kidnapped Syrian officers in 1972 under the command of Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the prime minister-designate.
In most of its conflicts, Israel has held more prisoners than its adversaries, and therefore paid a higher price for the return of its own soldiers. The Shalit affair, which we all hope will end this week, is just one more link in this very sad chain.
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