Gilad Shalit
Jabalya residents walking yesterday past a mural depicting captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Photo by Reuters
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The reason Gilad Shalit is not being freed is that the consensus in his case is no consensus. Gilad Shalit has been in prison for five years because between the big words uttered about him and the emotional readiness to pay the required price lies a big gap, to which we are not prepared to admit. Shalit will not be freed because, contrary to conventional wisdom, the push for his release is not nonpartisan; it is part of a struggle that falls along classic political lines.

It is noteworthy that the recent host of gimmicks and gestures related to Shalit's release, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement that he plans to worsen the conditions of Hamas militants held in Israel, were intended to commemorate Shalit's fifth anniversary in prison. In other words, the interest these acts generate is tied to a trigger, a symbolic moment - the five-year anniversary. All was quiet again a few days later, after Israelis got over local celebrities spending an hour in a mock prison cell (essentially creating the Gilad Shalit reality show ) and seeing Gilad Shalit's parents and brother chaining themselves together outside Netanyahu's official residence. Shalit's tragedy is seen and experienced as an "event," as an emotional peak that should be marked, rather than an ongoing reality that must be stopped.

Treating Shalit's tragedy as an event corresponds with the duplicity characterizing large swaths of the Israeli public. On the one hand, people feel a natural need to display empathy. On the other hand, deep inside they refuse to pay the price. Treating the Shalit issue as an event solves the dilemma. An event is something that happens and then fades away. It enables people to express some emotion without having to accompany those feelings with significant action once the ceremony ends.

Treating the Shalit issue as an event also makes it possible to use the misleading term "consensus." There is no consensus about the price Israel will have to pay in released Palestinian prisoners in order to secure Shalit's release, just about treating his continued captivity as a ceremony that should be marked on symbolic dates. The sweeping agreement is not about the list of Hamas prisoners but about the issue being a "national tragedy." The empathy is indeed nonpartisan, but what does it consist of aside from some initial solidarity? What happens when you dig beneath the external emotional layer?

Suffice it to look at reality itself - Gilad Shalit is still in captivity - to receive an answer. The seeming gap between the public's desire to "pay any price" for Shalit's freedom and the government's opposition to doing so is deceptive. The fact that the situation has not changed means there isn't really a gap, that pressure isn't really being exerted from below - and if it is, it's not strong enough to break the ruling paradigm.

The absence of such pressure is no accident. It faithfully reflects the fact that the issue fall along classic political lines: the left is in favor of releasing Shalit, the right is against it, and the center says it's in favor but acts against it. Everyone denies that the Shalit issue follows the traditional political blueprint, because Israelis feel ashamed before the Shalit family. After all, the issue had been declared apolitical, nonpartisan, a national tragedy. What can we say now?

The shame is being papered over with the gush of energy now being put into the pyrotechnics and choreography that are going into marking the event as a colossal tragedy in a spectacular way. This is done as compensation for the lack of real desire to "pay any price" and for the inability to admit it. The tumult surrounding the Shalit affair is necessary as a way of covering up the internal mumbles of objection, of dealing with the need to keep "prisoners with blood on their hands" where they belong.

Since Israelis are in deep denial about the refusal to get Shalit out by meeting Hamas' demands, synthetic substitutes are infused into the atmosphere to magnify the tragedy rather than resolve it. The substitutes have names like "the isolation cell project" and "the national consensus to return Gilad Shalit." In other words, they are gimmicks openly intended to draw attention. Their hidden intention is to merge tragedy with entertainment, television and shallow, superficial sensationalism. These make it easier to treat the issue as a national ceremony, a sort of end-of-season episode, after which life can go on, without guilt feelings.