The Shalits Should Set Sail

A private flotilla organized by the family of the abducted IDF soldier might achieve more for this country, and perhaps the region, than anyone of us can yet foresee or imagine.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
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Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

Imagine what would happen if instead of crisscrossing the country and rallying in front of the Prime Minister's Residence, the Shalit family had set sail to Gaza and, defying the Israeli sea embargo, landed on the shore and demanded to see their son?

If such bold action seems warranted, it is not only because of the recent success of the Turkish flotilla in compelling the Israeli government to change course, but also because the latest family campaign for Shalit's release is going nowhere.

Part of the problem is that, once again, the campaign to free Gilad Shalit has been too respectful of the government's wishes. Faced with the stern warning - not to say threat - that public pressure on the government would undermine its bargaining power vis-a-vis Hamas, the Shalit family has chosen to toe a cautious line that, while remarkably dignified and determined, is proving too timid.

And after more than four years of failing to win Gilad Shalit's release, Israel's government deserves no respect or consideration, certainly not from the family. Indeed, the very suggestion that by taking its plight to the public, the family might inadvertently jeopardize Israel's efforts to attain Shalit's release should be dismissed as a cynical outrage.

Yet the failure of the Shalit campaign bespeaks a still deeper problem within Israeli society itself: Accustomed over decades to a collective state of national grief, Israelis mobilize their empathic sensibilities almost exclusively for the bereaved families of fallen soldiers - soldiers fallen in battle, that is, not fallen captive.

Fortunately for the Shalit family, Gilad is still alive. But the collective emotional impulses that the campaign has most forcefully awakened are ill-fitted to the politically charged job that the campaign entails. Indeed, the large-scale public empathy the Shalits have been able to arouse only smoothes out the political edges of their campaign and neutralizes its adversarial quality. By its very nature, empathy is a form of identification, and identification is not the stuff that political resistance is made of.

Netanyahu, whose personal family legacy is the very emblem of Israel's culture of bereavement, knows that the outpouring of empathy for the Shalits does not - indeed, cannot - reflect displeasure with his policies. He knows that, more than anything else, the campaign serves as a means for encouraging collective solace, even complacency, since empathy is the surest sign of political apathy.

Hence, of course, the shameless ease with which ministers in Netanyahu's own coalition government can participate in the family campaign. After all, as Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who joined the march, announced: "Noam and Aviva Shalit's march together with the people of Israel is a march of support and not a protest." And he added: "It's a public mirror reflecting the Jewish people's mutual pledge." Or again, as a spokesman for Habayit Hayehudi - also a member of Netanyahu's coalition - put it following a meeting with the Shalits last week: "We are not here to demand that Netanyahu release more terrorists. We are here to show our empathy and concern for the Shalit family."

Only the politically numbing impact of collective empathy can explain how members of the government can allow themselves to take part in the Shalit campaign - as if it were not a protest directed at the decisions made by the government, which they represent. And sadly they are right, for just because the public would like to see Gilad Shalit released, this does not mean that it supports a deal that would make it happen, or indeed that it will continue to support one once pictures of triumphant homecomings of Palestinian prisoners are broadcast the world over.

It is precisely in view of the complexity of this reality that a prisoner swap requires a government capable of strategic decision making, something this government is not. And in this respect, it is no coincidence that the two leaders who decided on the largest prisoner exchanges in Israel's history were also the two who dared to make strategic decisions for Israel at large: Yitzhak Rabin, who agreed in 1985 to the so-called Jibril deal, in which 1,150 Palestinians were traded for three Israeli soldiers; and Ariel Sharon, who in 2004 released over 400 Palestinians in exchange for one Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers. Whatever the merits and demerits of these deals, they demanded a strategic sensibility that later went, in Rabin's case, into entering into the Oslo process, and in Sharon's, into the Gaza disengagement.

Lest it go unsaid, it takes a similar sensibility to decide against a prisoner swap, but that, too, must be the outcome of a strategic decision, not the lack thereof. In the case of Shalit, however, no such decision has been made, and he remains imprisoned for the same reason that coriander was until recently not allowed into Gaza - that is, due to small-minded tactical calculations that never add up to larger strategic valuations.

That is why the Shalit family should set sail to Gaza. Their own private flotilla might achieve more for this country, and perhaps the region, than anyone of us can yet foresee or imagine.

Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst with several Israeli NGOs dedicated to advancing final-status agreements between Israel and its neighbors.