MESS Report / Understanding Israel's National Obsession With Shalit

Israel should pay even the heavy price of releasing murderers for Shalit's return, but the public should step back from the historical overtones of longing for its missing soldiers.

A foreigner would never understand. The Israeli public's interest in the fate of the abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is an unparalleled phenomenon in Western democracies.

A simple Hebrew-language search in Google proves it. More than 720,000 search results pop up for Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, while a million and a half can be found for the 23-year-old who before his capture by Hamas militants four years ago, was completely anonymous – a basketball-loving corporal from a small town in the Galilee.

The Shalit affair has become a national Israeli obsession. This week his family will march – joined by tens of thousands of good and involved Israelis - all the way from their home in the north to Jerusalem, to try to break Netanyahu and force him to accept the Hamas' demands for a prisoner swap and finally end their son's suffering in Gaza.

True, the yellow ribbons so many have tied to cars in solidarity with the Shalit family is in imitation of an American tradition - but it is hard to imagine the Americans or even the British taking action like this over a missing soldier.

On the contrary, the United States and the United Kingdom (not to mention the Russian's growing complacency regarding the fate of their abducted soldiers in Chechnya) refuse to negotiate with the abductors of their troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But here in Israel, Shalit's fate deprives hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens frommany hours of sleep.

Gilad Shalit rally in Tel Aviv
Motti Milrod

In part, this is a positive phenomenon. It testifies to the fact that Israelis still attribute importance to mutual guarantee, a value which has seemingly eroded in the 2010 version of our capitalistic society with its many growing social gaps. The huge concern for Shalit's welfare and the desire of so many people to bring him back to his parents "at any price" - including the release of hundreds of murderers and Hamas militants - is related to the fact that Israel enforces mandatory military service.

American and British soldiers who fall into captivity are reserves forces, who earn a salary and are professionals who took a professional risk, Shalit and others in his age-group are legally obligated to serve in the IDF.

Leaving him in captivity could have a negative influence on the willingness of future youth to choose conscription into fighting units (Shalit served in the armored corps).

But there are problems: For years now Israelis, have viewed their soldiers as "children" - 20-year-old men, armed with the best technological equipment a modern military can offer, are commonly described as helpless young boys.

Shalit himself was adopted as Israel's "collective son". This has far reaching consequences: Over the last two decades, the idea that a soldier's is worse than that of a citizen has settled into the Israeli mind, an attitude that directly affects Israeli foreign and defense policies. But it is an attitude that should be flipped, as soldiers are drafted into the army to protect the citizens sometimes at the expense of their own lives.

During the second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War, the prime ministers (first Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert) were reluctant to send IDF forces out on ground operations, fearing public scrutiny over the soldiers' deaths that were likely to occur.

Such public criticism, however, is historically justified. The same Sharon was held responsible, as defense minister in 1982, for the unnecessary deaths of soldiers in the First Lebanon War. Nevertheless, there is a streak of logic in the rightist claim that the fear of death paralyzes prime ministers and military generals and often leads them to make the wrong decisions.

But back to Shalit: The excessive Israeli reaction, as displayed in the current march, can be interpreted in our neighborhood as a sign of weakness, of a superfluous history in our satiated and rotten western society.

Personally, I think Israel – now, after all other efforts have been exhausted – should pay even the heavy price of releasing murderers for Shalit's return. But still, there is room to move away from the historical overtones adopted by the media and many politicians in the Shalit affair.