Gilad Shalit could have spent this weekend at home in Mitzpe Hila. The bitter fact is that he could have been released a very long time ago. The cat was let out of the bag by none other than the prime minister himself. "There is no reason Israel should lose what remains of its national pride," said Ehud Olmert at a cabinet meeting, as he surprisingly toughened Israel's stance in the negotiations.
The soldier Shalit, it now appears, is rotting in jail as a service to returning lost pride to the nation. He never signed up for this flawed and perverted task, his parents did not volunteer their son for this, and it's even doubtful whether the majority of Israelis would support such a cruel and futile view.
Olmert, and the others faithful to the nation's lost honor, are welcome to sacrifice themselves for their cause, rather than shoulder it on to others. The nation's honor was lost in the Gaza war, fought under Olmert, as the ghastly footage of our soldiers' actions demonstrate; much more so than if Israel finally does what it must do and releases the thousand prisoners, without which we will not get Shalit back. It is the forestalling of the deal that stains national honor: This is not the conduct of a nation mindful of its soldiers' fate.
The deal is unequivocal and crystal clear. Release the prisoners and get Shalit. Keep the prisoners and don't get Shalit. Crossings or no crossings, no delays will lower the bar. They only raise it and put Shalit at greater risk. The price of a thousand prisoners would have brought Shalit home long ago, and it's better now than never.
But the bitter truth is even more outrageous. This is no "price." What "price" did Israel pay when it released Samir Kuntar, for instance? What damage came to our security and honor from the sight of him paraded across the Arab world, a Palestinian kaffiyeh around his shoulders? He killed and paid his dues, with 30 years of jail time, and was eventually released so that two families can bring their sons to rest. And what "price" did we endure with the release of the scandalous "bargaining chips," Dirani and Obeid?
A price? Even if you multiply this so-called price by a thousand, this is still no price to pay. The thousand prisoners requested by Hamas are less than a tenth of the many prisoners rotting in Israeli jails. Most of them served lengthy sentences, and experience shows they are unlikely to return to terrorism if released. Some are political prisoners who should never have been arrested and jailed under any rule of law. They deserve to be released with or without connection to Shalit.
Take, for example, the Palestinian parliamentarians. Or Marwan Barghouti, whose release would not only be no "price" to Israel, but may turn out to be a great advantage by establishing a new Palestinian leadership. Others were convicted by military courts that are quite difficult to define as a judicial system based on justice or proper trial. Go attend a military court in session and see it for yourselves. Either way, many of them have served long sentences and are, after all, supposed to be released some day.
The terms employed are deliberate deceit. The Israeli propaganda system works to make the price seem dear. "Blood on their hands" - Israel is unwise to use this term. All hands are bloodied here, Israelis' and Palestinians', and it's better not to ask whose hands more so. The "murderers" are not all murderers, after all - this is a term used to serve one of the sides, as is "terrorists." If you define "terrorism" as the killing of civilians, what can we say for ourselves? Even the deterrence argument is misleading: The Palestinians will go on trying to kidnap and kill soldiers, at least while the occupation continues.
So let us stop the chatter: Shalit can and must be returned in a single move. A thousand prisoners coming home, after years of imprisonment, could have signified the begining of a new era in the relationship with the Palestinians, had the initiative come from us. This will not happen now, but let us at least get what we can, which is a lot.
Yesterday, today, tomorrow at the latest - a thousand for Shalit. A thousand to return a captured soldier home, and yes, that too - a thousand to restore a nation's pride.
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