At the end of the somewhat surreal Egyptian television interview with Gilad Shalit, minutes before he returned to Israel after nearly five and a half years in captivity, the question was asked: What are your plans for the future?
In his response, Shalit did not talk about his personal plans. He did not talk about readjusting, about friends and famly, about work or studies, as might have been expected. Instead, he said: "I hope this deal will help us reach peace between the Israeli and Palestinian sides and there won't be military conflicts between us and the Palestinians."
It's hard to think of a more fitting and noble statement under such circumstances. Shalit did not speak only about himself and his own future; he spoke about us, about our future. He did not speak only about the Israelis; he also spoke about the Palestinians. He did not speak about his own suffering; he spoke about all our suffering, that of two bleeding nations in conflict with each other.
While most Israelis supported the prisoner-exchange deal, there were some voices of dissent, especially from terror victims - and rightfully so. But even supporters and the main forces behind the deal, and in particular the prime minister and his cabinet and military leaders and analysts, gave their approval with gritted teeth. They spoke of risks, of the high price, of the possibility of a new wave of terror, and of an unbearably difficult decision justified only by the principle of mutual responsibility.
The risks cannot be discounted, but Israelis and their leaders must not ignore the new and fascinating routes and possibilities opened up by the Shalit deal. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not a zero-sum game, in which one side's gain is the other side's loss. The joy of a Jewish mother does not necessarily obviate the joy of Palestinian mothers. The atmosphere of reconciliation can and should spread to both peoples.
In addition, it has been proved that a genuine and constructive dialogue between the Israeli and the Hamas leaderships, in which both sides give up some of their demands to meet in the middle, is possible. This dialogue must not be permitted to remain confined to the issue of prisoner release. It must be expanded to include such matters as the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the economic situation there, as well as terror and the rockets fired into Israel.
Perhaps this new atmosphere of dialogue affords an opportunity to reach a long-term nonbelligerence agreement with Hamas. Care must be taken not to depict the negotiations with Hamas as punishment of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Just the opposite: Efforts should be made to promote constructive dialogue with them as well.
Egypt's mediation in the Shalit deal was constant, fair and effective; it too should be expanded, if possible, to encompass more of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S. president failed even to get the parties to sit down together, but Egypt's Supreme Military Council, with the considerable leverage it can wield over all of the parties, actually has a chance.
We would do well, at this seminal moment, to avoid automatically demonizing the enemy. It is true that Shalit was treated inhumanely, subjected as he was to total isolation and denied visits from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But he reports having had radio and sometimes even television access, and we can hope he was not badly tortured as many Israelis were in the past.
Shalit's ability in that interview to cope with difficult and sometimes provocative questions, and to answer them diplomatically and thoughtfully after years in captivity was moving and surprising - as was his hope that the prisoner exchange will advance the cause of peace. If only Israel's leaders can show such hope and wisdom. Gilad's return was our hope for more than five years. In the months and years to come, we must bring that hope to fruition.
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