Losing our balance
It may be wiser to insist on less lopsided prisoner-exchange deals - but right now there's no way the Israeli public will accept that.
Somewhere in a safe in Jerusalem is a report that may never see the light of day. A committee headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar to examine the way Israel conducts negotiations over captured soldiers completed its year's work in mid-2009. Since then, despite demands by opposition politicians, the report - which apparently calls for a totally new pattern of future prisoner exchanges, or in other words, an end to lopsided deals where Israel releases hundreds of enemy prisoners for one of its own - has been suppressed for obvious reasons. Shamgar is not complaining. He understands.
At the end of his briefing to defense correspondents on Wednesday morning on the details of the prisoner deal with Hamas, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen was asked about the next time. How will Israel respond the next time Hamas or another terror organization manages, as they surely will, to capture an Israeli soldier? Cohen paused for a couple of seconds and said, "When all this is over, we will have to sit down and discuss this seriously. But it won't be simple and will necessitate a major test of leadership." He also understands.
Gilad Shalit has not yet been released and, along with the wave of euphoria that is already sweeping across the land, there are many with a bitter taste in their mouths, and some who are spreading this bile around, trying to convince us all that Israel has just suffered a humiliating capitulation.
I don't mean the family members of those who were murdered by the 279 lifers to be released next week. They can't be blamed. I mean the hitchhikers like the Israel Defense Forces' former chief rabbi, Avichai Rontzki, who hours after the deal was announced was already saying that if Shalit could not be sprung by a commando operation, the nation had to come to terms with the fact that he was "irretrievable." Or the Chabad-sponsored World Headquarters for Saving the Nation and the Land, which announced that ministers who voted in favor of the deal had "covered their hands in much Jewish blood." They don't understand.
It's not that there aren't totally legitimate reasons to oppose this deal; there are many, and the report by Shamgar's committee of veteran security and legal experts proves this. What the deal's vehement critics - and they come almost exclusively from the far-right and national-religious camp - don't get is how private and public interests have become so mixed up in this case as to make them totally indistinguishable. How nearly an entire nation has taken Shalit to its heart and feels all the better for it.
Personally, I couldn't stand much of the "free Gilad" campaign. No, he isn't a "hero" or "the child of every one of us" and his parents are not "noble." He was a dazed member of a tank crew that should have done a better job of defending its position, who was hustled into Gaza in a rather daring raid. His family, assisted by a large team of PR experts and spin doctors, used every media trick in the book to lobby the government and manipulate public opinion. None of this detracts from their position: Israel should have made every effort to liberate its soldier - though not pay "any price" as some have advocated - and Aviva and Noam Shalit had every right to use the entire arsenal of publicity stunts.
It would probably have been nobler to remain quiet and allow the government to act without undue pressure. It may also have been wiser. Some security officials still believe that the campaign and massive public support it received caused Hamas to hold out longer for a better deal, and that had the Shalits kept a lower profile, their son may have returned sooner. But the Shalit family did not set out to be noble. They're just normal. They didn't ask to be in this situation. Everything we have seen of them proves that they are not attention-seeking by nature, and their every action has been focused on that one goal, getting their son home. That is the normal thing to do. Ultimately, Israelis warmed to them and their cause not because of any smart slogan, but because of the Shalits' normalcy.
Israelis desperately want to believe that they live in a western, modern, democratic and liberal society. But there is an inbuilt contradiction between living in such a society, and sending your 18-year-old sons and daughters for a dangerous and unknown period of army service and carrying on that service for another 20 years of reserve stints. It was easier to bear this burden in more simple and Spartan times, but in order to carry on living this contradiction in the 21st century, the public has to make allowances for the personal. We all have to feel as if Gilad Shalit is our own son or brother, because that could actually be the case. And if he is the child of every one of us, then we can all feel normal, live the contradiction and support emotional and irrational positions.
The United States does not negotiate the return of captured soldiers or civilians with terror organizations or hostile governments and that is probably the best course to take. But a large, impersonal society where military service is voluntary, and people who serve and work in war zones do so of their own free will, can afford to maintain such a policy. Small, intimate Israel, which demands such sacrifices of its citizens cannot.
Meir Shamgar and Yoram Cohen both understand that while it may be wiser to insist on more balanced prisoner-exchange deals in the future, at present they cannot expect the Israeli public to accept that. There is no question - releasing hundreds of murderers will not be beneficial to Israel's security. But after six rounds of negotiations and forcing Hamas to reduce its demands to a level that the Shin Bet security service believes it can handle, the deal's inherent risks are balanced with the potential national damage in leaving Shalit to his fate. Others, such as the three ministers who voted against the deal, see the risk balance differently, but that is also a legitimate position.
The rabbis and zealots who would sacrifice Shalit do not see the balance at all. They yearn for a time and place where the personal does not exist. They do not have to bear the contradiction because they do not feel or see it at all. Just as they would saddle us with a theocracy perpetuating the myth of a Greater Israel, without consideration for individuals, they do not balance values and risks because for them the only values are unquestioned and unsurpassable ones. They believe they know, but they will never understand.
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