Efforts to secure the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity are proceeding via two channels - the operational channel and the bargaining channel. The operational channel hinges on three factors: precise intelligence, a capability for action, and an assessment of the public's reaction should the rescue operation fail. If the growing number of precedents is any indication, a decision in favor of a rescue operation would be made strictly under optimal conditions - the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence will have to be absolutely certain about the accuracy of the information available to them, the specially trained elite units (like Sayeret Matkal, Yamam and Shayetet 13) will have to put forth an enticing plan, and the estimated casualty count will have to appear sufficiently low to senior military and political echelons, without Shalit being among the casualties. While the odds of meeting all these preconditions and the chance of exploiting opportunities that suddenly arise do in fact exist, until today they have not been high.
This leaves the bargaining channel, which has been on a decline in recent months. Israel was prepared to hold close-quarter discussions with Hamas in Cairo (Ofer Dekel in one room, the kidnappers' representatives in another, with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman acting as a go-between). But the leaders of Hamas' military wing in the Gaza Strip, chief among them Ahmed Jabri and Mohammed Deif, who are holding Shalit together with others, refused, insisting on bargaining over the actual bargaining first.
Hamas has reverted back to its original demand, rejected by Israel, to release 1,400 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Israel is willing to release 450. For some time, Hamas gave the impression that this was an agreeable number and that the only disagreement centered on the make-up of the list. However, over the summer, the number climbed to 1,000 plus "400 women, children, and the ailing." Unless the original bargaining position is restored within the context of the negotiations, both sides will remain far from the matter at the core of these talks. Those well-versed in the meandering contacts do not anticipate a thaw before the spring of 2009, six months from now.
This is the real backdrop to Egypt's impotence in mediating a Shalit deal. Egypt in this case means Suleiman, the main power broker on all defense matters in Hosni Mubarak's regime. The Egyptian clock runs slower than that of Israel, as was evinced during the Azzam Azzam affair, among others. In the talks on a Shalit deal, failure is a fait accompli, and Suleiman refuses to subject himself to the humiliation.
Under these circumstances, even though the lack of progress in talks is chiefly Hamas' responsibility, Israel must reevaluate its priorities vis-a-vis the Shalit affair - how much is it willing to take, how much is it willing to give. The number of prisoners to be released, 450, is not sacrosanct. It was decided upon at one time or another in random fashion, through multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. Its significance is no more crucial than 310 or 724. Would-be kidnappers are not impressed by veteran kidnappers' willingness to accept this number of prisoners.
More important are the names on the list, among them brutal murderers and serial killers who are likely to kill again if released. But they also include terrorist masterminds who impart their knowledge on their cell mates, those whose only offenses included hurling Molotov cocktails and who are likely to be released soon. It is unclear which of the two groups poses a greater danger at this point in time, as Gaza is turning into an enormous cache of weapons, military know-how, and money from Iran and Hezbollah.
The Shin Bet security service's opposition to freeing killers is natural. The Shin Bet is charged with the task of thwarting terrorist attacks, and if such individuals are freed, its future workload will include acts of terror perpetrated by those released. The government must think on a plane that is one notch higher - assuming responsibility for security and derailing terror attacks, while at the same time knowing when to take note of reservations expressed by technical experts tasked with finding a solution to the problem. For instance, it could adopt the Palestinian Authority's "revolving door" policy and re-arrest those prisoners once the authorities receive information indicating their intentions to carry out attacks.
This is the giving aspect. As for taking, it is unclear why Israel is acting as though it were paralyzed. It is not going out of its way to hit leading Hamas officials (thus enabling them to turn Shalit into a human shield), it is not hindering the continued flow of fuel and money into the Gaza Strip, and it is not clarifying its refusal to be dragged into a war of attrition, which has partially cooled, if Hamas threatens to resume fighting. One idea that was considered and partially realized before being shelved - although it is worthy of full implementation - centers around the prisoners' families. It advocates a public relations blitz on television, radio, newspapers and bulletins, listing the names on the list alongside the pictures of those Israel is prepared to release, thereby clearly showing those individuals Hamas is holding hostage in Israeli jails by virtue of its refusal to release Shalit.
The protests against the government's handling of the matter are damaging Shalit. They encourage Jabri to adopt a more rigorous stance, allowing him to wait patiently for the next wave of demonstrations, since the pattern repeats itself. The protests serve just one purpose - but it does not benefit Shalit, rather the next Gilad Shalit, that nameless soldier who will become the victim of the next abduction. Once that soldier is in the same position Shalit finds himself in today, he will know that in Israel he has not been forgotten. Exactly what practical value this will have is an altogether different question.
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