Defense Minister Ehud Barak is quite an expert on hostage-taking and hostages. As a soldier and a commander in the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, he kidnapped Arabs. As chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister he handled the kidnapping of Israelis. Sometimes it ended well, sometimes badly. Sometimes in a military operation, sometimes in negotiations and the release of terrorists. In the end it's a zero-sum game. "In the Middle East," he once said, "people take hostages. Sometimes we take hostages, sometimes they do. That's the situation."
From the moment that Barak returned to the Defense Ministry in June 2007, a year after the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit to Gaza, he became a supporter of the deal. The longer he spent in the ministry the more he realized that there was no military option, no intelligence and no clues, the more strongly he began to embrace this viewpoint. As time passed and Shalit became a symbol, a collective son, everyone's child, an ongoing source of emotions and tears, Barak had no doubt that it would end in tears. In a wholesale release of terrorists. The question was how many and who.
"It's impossible to conduct a profound and painful public discussion that clashes with so many myths, when before your eyes there is a concrete, living soldier, whose name and face and biography everyone knows. This discussion was doomed to failure in advance. That's why we had to end the affair in the only possible way, in the absence of another option," Barak has been saying in recent days. He said identical things in recent years to two prime ministers in whose governments he served and is serving, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Almost four years ago he established the Shamgar Committee to reexamine Israel's position on the issue of captives. He instructed the head of the committee, former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, to submit the conclusions to him only after the Shalit file was closed. Within the next two weeks he will receive the committee's report. He will peruse the conclusions along with Netanyahu and the two will decide what is and isn't realistic, what is and isn't feasible, what is and isn't logical. Then the conclusions will be brought to the cabinet, perhaps to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee as well.
The next kidnapping is only a matter of time. As far as Barak is concerned, next time it will have to be different. "A country that wants to live cannot continue along the path on which we embarked with the Jibril deal, 26 years ago," he says in private conversation, referring to the 1985 agreement in which Israel released 1,150 security prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured during the first Lebanon War.
"It began in 1985, then there was the Tennebaum deal, which was totally bizarre, then the Goldwasser-Regev deal, and now Gilad Shalit. This is the time to conduct an orderly examination of how Israel should behave from now on when facing kidnappers of soldiers, and terror organizations."
The general outlines of Barak's position are as follows: First, there has to be a decision on a framework for entering negotiations for the release of captives. There will be a decision to the effect that Israel will not permit the kidnappers to decide on the names of the prisoners to be released, as was the case at the start of negotiations for Shalit's release, during Olmert's term. And there will be a decision, by the government or the Knesset, that any deviation from that framework will require the approval of the Intelligence Subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Barak brings as an example the conduct of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with Miriam Groff, the legendary mother of captive Yosef (Yoske ) Grof, who was released along with his two friends in the Jibril deal, in exchange for 1,150 prisoners. The prevailing belief is that Rabin was unable to withstand the tremendous pressure of Grof's mother, who fought for her son's life and got on his nerves. "Let's say that Rabin, in those days, had been bound by a series of rules that were determined by decisions of the government and the Knesset. He would have said to Miriam Grof, 'Madam, I'm listening to you, but there are things that even I can't do,'" says Barak.
Is he sure that that would work - that the next Aviva Shalit will agree to accept the limitations that did not exist until now? "I'm not certain of anything except that one day we'll all die," says Barak to people who have asked him the question in recent days. But he says that this uncertainty does not exempt the State of Israel from the need to set down a series of rules. After all, other countries have made rules and they abide by them.
The new rules may not be relevant for the next kidnapping, but only for the one following it. But that, too, is something. We have to make a change, he says. And, yes, Barak understands that such a decision, making rules that are intended to tie the hands of the Israeli government in future negotiations, would also affect the attitude of the terror organizations towards their hostages.
As opposed to Netanyahu, who says unequivocally that he achieved a better deal than that rejected by Olmert towards the end of his term, Barak sounds less certain: "There is no way to measure. Hamas gave in on several issues, and so did we." He says he did not need the support of the heads of the three security services - the army, the Mossad and the Shin Bet - in order to accept the deal. But if not for their stance, fewer ministers would have supported Netanyahu's proposal, he says.
The deal and deterrence
Has Israel's deterrence capability been undermined? Barak thinks this is a slogan. Deterrence capability is a more complex issue. On the one hand, Israel's sense of unity, solidarity and mutual responsibility was strengthened. On the other hand, there is no question that Hamas was also strengthened and chalked up an achievement. This stew contains many ingredients, and there's no way of knowing which is the predominant one.
Barak didn't have time to read The New York Times editorial, which said that the deal would undermine the chances of renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He didn't understand the connection. Why must there be an influence? He points out that in the past it was said that such a deal would greatly weaken Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas ). But today Abu Mazen is strong. He received sweeping support in the United Nations for his request to recognize a Palestinian state. What should prevent him from sitting at the negotiation table?
He is frustrated by the international criticism of Israeli construction in Jerusalem, in the Gilo neighborhood, for example. "Every plan has six preliminary steps even before it begins, and at every stage the plan is announced once again and at every stage there is criticism. Of what? Gilo is a neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem. My government built four times as much in Jerusalem. The governments of Olmert and Ariel Sharon built far more than this government, but the world was understanding because there was a diplomatic process. I think that Abu Mazen is trying to maneuver and to use it as an excuse not to return to the negotiating table."
Livni's prolonged silence
Since the Shalit deal was approved by the cabinet last Tuesday, Israel has been conducting a lively, profound, emotional and dignified public discussion. One voice is missing, that of opposition leader Tzipi Livni. With the exception of a laconic, somewhat ambiguous announcement, in which Livni declared, in what sounded like a formal legal statement, that she "respects" the government decision. She didn't say that she was opposed to the deal. She didn't say that she was in favor. She fell silent and disappeared from the studios, leaving the stage to her rival from Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, who didn't hesitate to congratulate and praise the prime minister, and to her rival from the Labor Party Shelly Yachimovich, who also expressed sweeping support for the decision.
It would be something of an exaggeration to say that the nation was eagerly awaiting Livni's statement. The nation was eagerly awaiting only Gilad Shalit, and it received him, standing on his own two feet. But Livni's prolonged silence on such a sensitive subject with such dramatic consequences for Israeli society and its security, caused more than one political colleague to raise an eyebrow. There has never been a precedent in which the opposition leader, who is by definition also a candidate for the premiership, chooses to say nothing on a diplomatic-security issue of supreme importance, one dealing with the basic existence of the State of Israel.
The silence was not a result of sudden laryngitus, nor of stage fright. Livni is opposed to the deal. Had she been a cabinet member she would have voted against it. Had she been prime minister, she would have rejected it. Gilad Shalit should thank God, if he is a believer, and in any case he should thank the Israeli electorate, for the fact that Livni is not currently the prime minister at present.
A leader is tested at these very crossroads - unpopular, difficult, uncomfortable decisions when he or she has to go against the national mood, against public opinion, against the ethos and the pathos. Livni's close associates offered this explanation for her silence. Gilad's father, Noam Shalit, who is familiar with Livni's viewpoint, contacted her just before last Tuesday's cabinet meeting and asked her to remain silent. Not to sound an "oppositional voice" until the exchange was completed. Livni complied with his request and even granted him a bonus: four additional days of silence, since Gilad's return.
This explanation is problematic for three reasons: First, a private citizen, as precious as he may be, is not supposed to impose his will on an elected official, in this case, one of the senior elected officials in the country. That brings to the point of absurdity the concept of "the will of the people" not to mention the concept of "opposition leader." Secondly, from the moment the deal was approved in the government Livni, even if she had spoken against it, would not have been able to prevent it. Thirdly, all 29 cabinet ministers took a stand: 26 were in favor, 3 were against. None of them considered abstaining. What Livni did was to abstain.
It's impossible to escape the feeling that Livni chose to hide behind Noam Shalit's back. She didn't want to spoil the party. Maybe she was afraid of losing the vote of Israeli women, a large majority of whom supported the deal. Maybe she was afraid to oppose the will of 80 percent of the public, and probably 80 percent of Kadima's electorate.
In past discussions concerning Shalit's release, she demonstrated courage, expressing consistent opposition to the massive release of terrorists in exchange for one person. About two years ago, after Netanyahu had rejected a previous Hamas offer, she stood on the Knesset dais and supported him. She spoke of national strength, about the danger of the terrorists who would be released, about damage to Israel's deterrence capability as a result of accepting the deal, about the ethos that an Israel Defense Forces soldier sets out to fight in order to protect civilians, and that the civilians are not supposed to risk their lives for a soldier who was taken captive.
She opposed the 2004 prisoner swap with Hezbollah in which Sharon's government released 435 prisoners in return for kidnapped Israeli civilian Elhanan Tennenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers. She opposed the earlier Shalit deal that was offered toward the end of Olmert government when she was foreign minister, and Barak, defense minister. She supported the 2008 deal with the Hezbollah, in which Israel released terrorists in exchange for Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser. But she did it with a heavy heart, out of a hope that at least one of them was alive, and regretted it immediately afterwards (when their corpses were returned ).
Soon she intends to break her silence, to explain, and mainly to speak about the future. That's important but it will be too little and too late.
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