For the past four years, since Gilad Shalit's abduction to the Gaza Strip, Israel's governments have been conducting double negotiations over what and how much should be paid to release a captive soldier. One part of the negotiations was with Hamas, the other with the Israeli public.
In the negotiations with Hamas, Israel has made difficult concessions that include agreeing to release more than 300 out of 450 Palestinian prisoners whose release it had strongly opposed. It also reduced the number of prisoners to be exiled after their release. Hamas made concessions, too, by changing the composition of the list of prisoners to be released and by renouncing its demand for the release of Arab prisoners with Israeli citizenship.
From this we may conclude that as long as the negotiations over the "Shalit deal" continue, both sides may achieve additional concessions.
The Israeli government uses the same logic in its negotiations with the Israeli public. It wants to persuade the public that releasing 45 prisoners with particularly murderous records and returning them to the West Bank would cause real damage to national security. This leads to the conclusion that any public pressure to free them in exchange for Gilad Shalit endangers the safety of Israel's citizens. This argument, too, should not be underestimated.
But both arguments are unconvincing. The negotiations with Hamas have been going on for four years, a brutal blockade has been imposed on a population of 1.5 million people for three years, and none of this, and not even Operation Cast Lead, have driven Hamas to change its conditions substantially. There is no evidence that continuing the negotiations for another four years will bring about different results. On the contrary, the events surrounding the Gaza-bound flotillas and the opening of the civilian blockade of the Gaza Strip only show that Israel is not really in control of events.
The Israeli public is not blind to the danger involved in freeing dangerous prisoners, nor to its government's failing policy. It has not been asked about its stand, but the public appears not to believe that freeing 45 prisoners, however dangerous, is a danger to Israel's survival or poses a greater danger than what Israel has already absorbed.
It seems that the longer Israel delays Shalit's release, the greater the damage to the state and its people. The deal to free Shalit from captivity must be concluded immediately.
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