Ehud Olmert has been called on too quickly to stand up to the supreme test that the position of prime minister can pose making decisions that are matters of life and death. He has barely had time to warm the chair in his bureau, and already he is facing a dilemma too difficult to bear: Does he save the abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit, at any cost, or is he prepared to exact from him and his family the highest price of all in order to avoid giving in to extortion and setting a precedent whose end no one can foresee?
Olmert is also being exposed to the difficulties involved in managing a harsh crisis in a democratic society and an environment of media transparency: The positions he adopts while facing the enemy are picked up and recorded at home as well, and they are ensnaring him in commitments that could severely erode his credibility.
The constraints are well known, and they were also faced by the prime ministers who preceded Olmert: On one hand, concern for the fate of the abducted individual and solidarity with his family's distress, which simply cannot be put into words; and on the other hand, the security worldview that rejects giving in to the demands of kidnappers, which rests, inter alia, on the understanding that Israelis in Israel, the territories and worldwide - are a vulnerable public from which it is relatively easy to take hostages.
The decision between these two alternatives is influenced by precedents, by the explicitly declared values of Israeli society (the sanctity of life, the principle of not deserting a comrade on the battlefield), by the extent of public awareness of the suffering of the hostage's families, and primarily, by the prime minister's temperament and his personal list of priorities.
Olmert is now facing a test that will determine, to no small degree, his standing as a leader: How will the affair end, and will Israel emerge from it strengthened or more vulnerable? Will he successfully navigate his way through the various tactical options toward the objective? To what extent will he be able to preserve his credibility without forgoing what is most important? To what extent will his promise to Gilad's family, to place their son's personal fate at the forefront of his concerns, be realized? To what extent during the decision-making process will he repair the Israel Defense Forces' damaged pride? Will he deal with the crisis as an isolated issue, or will he strive to turn it into a lever for extensive dialogue with the Palestinian leadership?
After all, one cannot turn a blind eye to the reality that has been evolving since the abduction: The government of Israel is looking for any and every avenue of communication with the Hamas government; publicly and behind the scenes, directly or through mediators, Olmert is wandering around trying to establish contact with anyone at all, and certainly with Ismail Haniyeh, in an effort to rescue Gilad Shalit. All of a sudden, the untouchable enemy, the one who until yesterday had been called on to meet certain conditions before any dialogue could take place, has become the object of courtship.
On the face of it, the experience of the last four days has offered proof for Olmert's view that there is no one to talk to on the Palestinian side: Not only is Mahmoud Abbas hapless, but Haniyeh, too, has no control over what goes on in Hamas's military wing and among the other terror groups. But this conclusion is subject to doubt, because it fails to take into account the effect that Israel's alienation of the Hamas government has had on its ability to enforce its will on the public.
When one so tangibly feels the intensity of the distress born of the Kerem Shalom attack, one cannot avoid heretical thoughts: How come all the energy, willingness and empathy that is going into saving one soldier from captivity does not emerge in the bloody rut in which the Israel-Palestinian conflict is played out? Why does Israeli society take for granted the continuation of the armed struggle, with all its fatalities and wounded, and not do all in its power to stop it, while at the same time being moved so deeply by the sight of the Shalit family's terrible suffering?
And these questions certainly do not mean to suggest, God forbid, that the effort to save the abducted soldier should be lower down on the list of priorities.
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