The state, not the families
Israel has a clear responsibility to bring Gilad Shalit home, but it also has a more important commitment to protect its citizens from rocket and mortar fire.
Anyone looking in from the outside at the emotional turmoil and media circus surrounding the return of the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser would likely have concluded that Israel is run not by the government but by families worried about the fate of their loved ones. Since the matter of Gilad Shalit has still not been solved, it is worth returning some sanity to the public debate, and not to repeat our mistakes.
Shalit's return is not a primary strategic challenge for Israel. Israel has a clear responsibility to bring him home, but it also has a more important commitment to protect its citizens from rocket and mortar fire, because an entire region and tens of thousands of people are suffering from these attacks and the terror they bring. And the state is responsible for defending them.
Hamas' control of Gaza, and not Shalit's abduction, which is one of its consequences, is the strategic challenge facing Israel. There is no easy answer to this challenge, which is characterized by an extremist group committed to Israel's destruction only a stone's throw from Israeli population centers. It also includes the never-ending attacks on Israeli towns, and the links between Hamas and Iran - and its threats.
The press, and in particular the electronic media, has a clear tendency to personalize the situation and turn it into a heart-rending story. Matters of principle and reality attract less attention than another interview with family members or their supporters. The deterioration of the debate over a difficult strategic issue to the level of a soap opera is worrying and outrageous. After all, it is clear that plucking away time after time on the strings of the families' distress only strengthens Hamas: Every appearance of a family member on television - and it makes no difference what they say - is another victory for Hamas' brutal tactics of extortion. The family members should think about this.
It is clear that Israel has no simple answer to the Hamas government in Gaza; the continued flip-flops on the opening of the Gaza border crossings is the evidence. This is a long-term challenge based on the Palestinian movement's failure to establish a single legitimate political apparatus capable of speaking in the name of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian failure to build a nation has serious consequences for Israel and the chances for peace. All this has disappeared from public discussion due to the focus on Gilad Shalit, which makes it difficult for the cabinet to formulate an overall strategy on Hamas.
The continued efforts to free Shalit must be integrated into the general strategy for dealing with Hamas. In the first stage we must change the rules of the game. Like many other observers, I am not familiar with the details of the negotiations. But it is clear that the way Israel entered the talks was a mistake. It is still not too late to change the rules governing the negotiations. The talks to free Shalit are being managed as if they relate to the fates of members of a Jewish community in the Diaspora threatened by a pogrom and not in a sovereign state. Israel must announce that it will not continue with negotiations until the Red Cross visits Shalit and reports on his situation.
It is worth remembering that Hamas is also under pressure to present its accomplishments: It is demanding the release of hundreds of prisoners. An unequivocal demand to receive reliable and credible information through a visit of Red Cross representatives would increase the pressure on Hamas. Instead, Israel is being dragged onto Hamas' home turf and has agreed to discuss the criteria for releasing prisoners - whether with or without "blood on their hands."
However, separating the negotiations on Gilad Shalit from other issues, such as opening the crossings, gives Hamas the upper hand. A discussion of the problems as a whole would put Hamas in a position that reduces the importance of the Shalit abduction. The cabinet has failed in its current tactics. The fact is that Shalit has still not returned. The cabinet, which fears public opinion and the reactions of the families and their supporters, is negotiating more or less along the lines dictated by Hamas.
The way Israel deals with the strategic challenge of Hamas has effects far beyond Gilad Shalit's personal fate. The cabinet must have the courage to tell the public this, and the family, too, despite all the pain. After all, the state sends its soldiers off to battle knowing the risks to their lives. It is critical to understand that policy is set by the state, not the families.