Top MK: Public Pressure on Abductees Forced Decision Makers' Hands

Top MK Tzachi Hanegbi says public pressure limits leaders' ability to make decisions for greater good.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chair Tzachi Hanegbi fiercely opposes the high price Israel pays in prisoner swaps, yet if he were the one making the decisions, he's not sure he could withstand the pressure.

Leaders "know there is a growing demand to pay painful prices, so they don't take risks," he said. "I can't imagine a prime minister standing before the people and explaining that he is only willing to pay a limited price to save Gilad Shalit's life, because he would face unbearable criticism."

Hanegbi notes he isn't talking specifically about Olmert, but about all Israel's prime ministers of the past two decades.

"The prime ministers see they don't have the public's support, and they don't have the media's support," he said. "And if Bogey [Moshe] Ya'alon dares express a deviant opinion, the families call him a 'little busybody' and no one wants to stand behind him." Prime ministers "find themselves in the position of being the enemy, not terror, and they are accused of keeping the boys from coming home due to their inflexibility."

This limits their ability to make decisions for the good of the state and limit concessions, he said.

The abductees' lobby undoubtedly has been Israel's strongest over the past two years. Initially after their abduction, in July 2006, Ehud Goldwasser's and Eldad Regev's families were careful when talking to the press. The families stayed home and virtually did not speak. Goldwasser's father Shlomo was the only one who took a slightly different stance: Let's use the army of reporters camped outside our door, as our mouthpiece for the public and public officials.

This position slowly became the families' policy. Goldwasser's wife Karnit became the most dominant character in the campaign. Family members became increasingly open, and the press gave them an open mic.

The families and friends established the Campaign for the Abducted Soldiers, including a Web site. Goldwasser and Regev's army comrades established another headquarters. The two groups organized a series of events.

"The point was that no one in the country would not know who Udi is, who Eldad is and who Gilad is. And in that, we succeeded," said Miki Leibovitz, an activist with the second group, this week.

In a matter of months, it became the people's campaign. Schools, clubs, organizations here and abroad and even major corporations joined the effort. Not a week went by without an event for the abducted soldiers, like a march from Eilat to the abduction point on the northern border. The families said the events were important in order to "stay on the agenda."

"I know that people say the power of the Israeli people is the value we attach to human life, but that is not a source of power but a source of weakness, and it doesn't help to glamorize it," said psychology professor Shlomo Breznitz.

"We call the abductees 'the boys.' They are everyone's children - even that expression is enough to weaken those who must withstand the pressure," said Breznitz, a former Kadima Knesset member. Breznitz says there was no counter voice to the families' campaign, "because it is difficult to face the media terror."

Meir Indor of the Organization of Casualties of Terror Attacks says that while the public understands that rape victims deserve to see the perpetrator punished, terror victims are treated entirely differently - their murderers are freed in exchange for abductees. Indor believes this is because prisoner swaps are subject to political polemic. The families' campaign had a lot of money, and was very sophisticated, making use of the slogan "Our apathy will kill them," among others.

"I don't know how to work that way," Indor said. "Hezbollah's long arm moved the Regev and Goldwasser families."

When told that is a very harsh comment, he responded that the families "didn't cooperate willingly but became hostages. But the result of their campaign is that all of Israel became its hostages."