Jerusalem & Babylon / A Sorry Kind of Solidarity

If Israelis and Jews can only unite around an inoffensive cause like Shalit, their unity isn't worth very much.

Gilad Shalit was the prisoner from central casting. No one could have dreamed up a more perfect subject for the campaign masterminded by the battalion of pro bono PR advisers that joined up to serve his parents. He had all the qualities to endear him to the public and none that would alienate various sectors of Israeli society and the Jewish world. He was a combat soldier captured while on active duty. But his boyish looks, pencil-thin frame and awkward smile made everyone think of a poor lost boy.

It's no coincidence that almost all the photographs released by the Free Shalit campaign over the last five years showed him wearing civilian clothes. If he had been a bit older, tougher looking, the officer commanding the tank instead of a crew member, our heartstrings wouldn't have been pulled so poignantly.

Choppers Shalit Hila AP 18.10.11

Three other soldiers were in that tank on June 25, 2006. One was knocked unconscious by the fire-extinguishing system. Lt. Hanan Barak and Sgt. Pavel Slutzker were killed. If Shalit had been killed by the rocket propelled grenade shot at the tank, and if Barak or Slutzker had been taken prisoner instead, would we have seen such an outpouring of support for the prisoner deal? Would thousands have marched demanding that the government pay any price? Would 79 percent of Israelis have been in favor of the exchange, as a Yedioth Ahronoth survey showed on Monday? I don't think so.

Barak, a company commander in the Armored Corps, could not have been labeled "the child of us all." And the Israeli public would not have found it so easy to identify with the Slutzker family with their heavy Russian accents.

Yes, Noam and Aviva were perfect too. Not Ethiopian or religious, not Druze or settlers, just a normal Israeli couple, secular, middle-class, from a tiny village in the Galilee no one had heard of before their son was taken captive. They have two sons and a daughter, not to mention Noam's twin brother who was killed on the Syrian front in the Yom Kippur War. And as a bonus, Shalit also had French citizenship, from his grandmother who immigrated to Israel in the 1940s, though President Nicolas Sarkozy and French Jews were not the only ones to get in on the act.

Just about every Jewish community around the world held a vigil or rally calling for Shalit's release. The cause transcended all political divides. Had Shalit been taken prisoner in a controversial war, during Operation Cast Lead for example, or while policing in the West Bank, some would have found it hard to march on his behalf wholeheartedly.

But his tank was within the Green Line, attacked during a period of relative calm, just 10 months after Israel had dismantled settlements, withdrawn and erased every symbol of its occupation of the Gaza Strip. Occasionally a lone voice was raised, trying to remind us that Israel holds more than 10,000 "security prisoners" and enforces its closure on Gaza, and that after Shalit's capture, the Israel Defense Forces entered the Strip and embarked on the five-month Operation Summer Rains in which 394 Palestinians, over a quarter of them civilians, were killed.

But these voices were drowned out in the overwhelming chorus. Perhaps at this point I should mention briefly why I was for the deal. I don't think an exchange in which the Palestinians get less than 10 percent of their prisoners held by Israel in return for all the Israelis they have captured is exaggerated in the Palestinians' favor. And if this seems like sophistry, I would point out that less than a lifetime ago it would have been unthinkable that Jews had any way of freeing their imprisoned brethren other than by paying an exorbitant ransom.

The 1956 Suez Campaign was the first time since the days of the Bible that Jews not only fought as a nation and took prisoners but actually held thousands of enemy combatants for every one of their soldiers taken captive. A nation that can exchange a thousand of the enemy's fighters for one of its own is negotiating from a position of strength. And while I certainly don't buy Benjamin Netanyahu's tortured reasoning on why the Shalit deal was impossible last year and suddenly was now or never in October 2011, I've spoken with enough senior officers and Shin Bet officials to be convinced that they can handle the security implications of the prisoner release.

But my personal support for the deal doesn't mean the populist Free Shalit campaign didn't make me sick to my stomach with its hypocrisy and sentimentality. Some have blamed the Israeli media for boosting the campaign, but that's unfair. The deal's opponents, politicians, security experts and family members of terror victims were given a full hearing on the airwaves throughout, certainly more than opponents of the Oslo Accords and the Gaza pullout received. A number of prominent pundits were openly against the deal.

But the media is not as powerful as many would like to believe; ultimately it's the tail waved by the dog of public opinion, and it had no choice but to embrace the noble Shalit family. I'm happy Gilad Shalit is finally back home, seemingly in better shape than anyone had hoped for, and I think the price paid for his release, while heavy, was justified.

But I'm deeply disappointed with the infantile "togetherness" that Israeli society and the Diaspora displayed throughout this overdrawn episode. I don't think the "solidarity" and "togetherness" is anything to be proud of. If Israelis and Jews can only unite around such an inoffensive cause, their unity isn't worth very much. It means the chances of building a workable majority for the difficult measures to achieve peace, rebuilding the economy, forging a just social structure and finally getting around to drafting a constitution are exceedingly slim. Shalit's ordeal is over but I fear we'll only see this kind of consensus the next time Israel fights a bloody war, and even then only if it's slickly sold by the spin doctors.