Hamas announced this week that negotiations on a deal to free Gilad Shalit have "collapsed" and blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for their failure, saying he had "taken a step backward." Netanyahu responded that "if Hamas wants there to be a deal, there will be one, and if it doesn't, there won't be one. The decision is in its hands."
This assignment of responsibility for Shalit's release to Hamas is both puzzling and infuriating. The negotiations stalled because both sides entrenched themselves in their own hard-line positions over a very small number of specific Palestinian prisoners - whom Israel is unwilling to release and Hamas is unwilling to exclude from the deal - as well as over the number of prisoners who will be deported to the Gaza Strip or overseas.
At first glance, there is logic to Israel's demand that those prisoners who perpetrated particularly atrocious murders, or were responsible for their perpetration, should either remain in jail or be deported. But this logic collapses when compared with Israel's willingness to release a huge number of prisoners, including many with "blood on their hands" who are liable to be no less dangerous.
Moreover, it's far from certain that the "heavyweight" prisoners will resume committing terror attacks. Israel has freed thousands of Palestinian prisoners in the past, either because they finished serving their sentences or as part of prisoner exchanges. Some did resume terrorist activity, but many went home and led ordinary lives. So why is Israel digging in its heels over this particular handful of prisoners, after having already made such a significant concession in terms of the overall principle of releasing prisoners?
It seems the prime minister is being motivated by considerations of honor, which he fears will be decimated if he accedes to all of Hamas' demands. Netanyahu is still a prisoner of his former opposition to freeing any terrorist, as well as of the fear that he will be held responsible for any future terror attacks.
Honor is indeed a fundamental consideration in any act of state. But the Shalit deal is not an "act of state" - it is a humanitarian necessity. Failing to carry it out will actually undermine the state's honor in the eyes of its citizens.
Moreover, when Netanyahu places the ball in Hamas' court, he is eradicating the last vestiges of his own honor. After all, he conducted negotiations with Hamas and made huge concessions to the organization. But in the end he could not find the courage to complete the deal.
Shalit must not be allowed to disappear into a mist of empty verbiage. This soldier, who has already been in captivity for three and a half years, cannot serve as a living monument to Israel's national pride. The price of such an "image victory" over Hamas is liable to prove higher than we can bear.
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