On the Day When It Is Too Late

At the moment, the possibility of using military means to free Gilad Shalit seems difficult to carry out.

On the day when it is already too late, the prime minister will hold a press conference and end his prolonged silence about kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The grieving Shalit family will seclude itself in its home at Mitzpeh Hila. The prime minister will explain that there was no other way: Israel made every effort, but it could not give in to Hamas' blackmail, in part because it feared that a concession would bring about a wave of new abductions. Soon accusations will begin to fly: The media will ask whether the kidnapping could have been prevented. The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service will renew their mutual recriminations regarding intelligence delays during the efforts to locate Shalit. And Hamas? Hamas will announce it is willing to resume negotiations, this time for the return of the body.

In the last week, Hamas has been threatening that Shalit's life is in jeopardy. Mousa Abu Marzouk, deputy to Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal, said that if his organization's demands were not met, Israel would need to negotiate for the return of Shalit's bones. Other Hamas spokesmen have expressed themselves in similar terms.

The common wisdom within the Israeli security establishment holds that Hamas is bluffing. The kidnapped soldier is an asset, not a burden, to his captors. His abductors know that if one hair on his head is harmed, Israel will hunt them down relentlessly until the day they die.

The necessary conclusion is that Hamas resorted to threats because it is nervous about the stalled negotiations for a deal in which Shalit would be released in exchange for 450 Palestinian prisoners. But this applies only as long as Hamas sees a point in negotiating for the prisoners' release. The philosophy of certain Islamic authorities does not require that a hostage be kept alive. The kidnapped soldier has a purely instrumental value: If continuing to hold him becomes a threat to the safety of the abductors, they will not hesitate to murder him and then negotiate for the return of the body.

The victims of previous kidnappings (soldiers Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa'adon) were murdered. Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured in Lebanon, "vanished" without a trace. It is unlikely that Hamas' leadership would interfere in the decisions of its military branch, which is holding Shalit.

Two months ago, a special ministerial committee approved the criteria that negotiation coordinator Ofer Dekel proposed for the release of prisoners, including some "with blood on their hands." Cabinet ministers say they will reluctantly vote in favor of a deal, even if it includes the release of "hard-core" terrorists. According to leaks, the list of names demanded by Hamas is indeed extremely difficult for Israel to stomach. What is at stake is not just emotional difficulty, but a security risk: Israel fears that many of the released prisoners will resume their terrorist activities.

When the prime minister and the defense minister are asked about the state of the negotiations, they always give the same answer: Any comment, on or off the record, will harm the efforts to release him. Have they decided that the price Israel is being asked to pay makes an agreement impossible? We do not know.

At the moment, the possibility of using military means to free Shalit seems difficult to carry out. The problem is not only a lack of intelligence, but the difficulty of coming up with an operational plan that would rescue Shalit safely from a densely populated and well-guarded area. Moreover, Palestinian sources claim Shalit is being held in a booby-trapped site.

In light of the stalled negotiations, perhaps other ideas should be explored. Might it be possible to reach a deal in which released prisoners would be deported from the West Bank to Europe or Gaza, like the deal Dekel himself brokered with the Palestinians in 2002, at the end of the siege on Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity? Or, perhaps, if there is a negotiator capable of putting such a deal together, Shalit's release might be made as part of a bigger move, which would include the easing of certain restrictions at the Rafah crossing? Or maybe the time has come to make the list of prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding a matter of public debate?

The negotiations over Shalit began with the presumptuous belief of Israeli leaders that Israel's deterrence in the region could be reset at the expense of a 20-year-old soldier, thus preventing future kidnappings. Since then, there has been a certain disillusionment with this idea, but now, once again, an impasse has been reached, an impasse ascribed to the impossible demands of Hamas. Israel does not have all the time in the world. It is hard to know what kind of physical and mental condition Shalit is in after two years in total isolation.

Reporters who accompanied former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz on his visits to the West Bank and Gaza during the early days of the second intifada noticed an interesting phenomenon. Whenever Mofaz met with soldiers, he was asked only two questions: What happened to the three soldiers who were kidnapped at Har Dov in October 2000? And why was injured Border Policeman Madhat Yosef left to die of his wounds at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus? The soldiers were not interested in whether Yasser Arafat was responsible for the intifada. They were concerned with an entirely different matter: What would the state do for them if they were ever in a similar situation?

Gilad Shalit was an ordinary soldier doing mandatory military service; he was a warrior in a combat unit, at a time when serving in such a unit is not as self-evident as it used to be. We cannot ignore the state's moral obligation to the families of terror victims, whose killers were captured only with considerable effort. But there is also a significant obligation toward Gilad Shalit and soldiers like him, who might someday find themselves in the same predicament.