Faulty strategic calculations

If I were Gilad Shalit’s father, I would do everything he is doing, and more if possible, to persuade the Netanyahu government to meet Hamas’ demands for a prisoner exchange and obtain Gilad’s release. If I were Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, I would refuse the deal for fear of the consequences of releasing so many truly vile terrorists back into society.

There are no objective criteria and conditions here for doing a deal or not. Whatever happens–and eventually something will happen–the deal will look desirable to some Israelis and disgraceful and dangerous to others. And both camps will be right.

But even without a deal, which is where we are now, a few lessons and insights need to be discussed from the Israeli point of view. Israel has allowed itself to engage the prisoner exchange question with Hamas on the basis of faulty strategic calculations.

First of all, with all due regard for the sacred value of repatriating captured Israelis, and soldiers in particular, a country in our situation simply cannot link major strategic decisions to the fate of a single soldier. For several years, the economic siege of the Gaza Strip was described by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and others as designed to bring about Shalit’s release. Collective punishment was imposed on a million and a half Gazan civilians because of the fate of a single soldier. It didn’t work, and Israel paid a heavy price in international condemnation.

Secondly, there are a number of good reasons for Israel to try to talk directly to Hamas. Economic conditions in Gaza are one. A ceasefire is another. And a prisoner exchange is a third. If indeed Shalit’s fate is so important, why doesn’t it justify at least an attempt to negotiate directly, rather than through German, Turkish or Egyptian good offices? By putting all bilateral issues on the table, trade-offs involving economic, political, security and prisoner issues might become a possibility. Of course it’s very possible Hamas will refuse to talk; but it’s worth a try. Nor should PLO sensitivities be a factor here; after all, the PLO too is talking to Hamas.

Third, from the outset of the Shalit affair, the Olmert government apparently adopted a misguided approach by inviting Hamas to submit its own list of prisoners to be exchanged–the outrageous list we continue to confront. Olmert should have offered to free a single Palestinian prisoner, say Marwan Barghouthi, in exchange for Shalit, and bargained from there. Is it too late to revert to this far healthier approach?

Then there are the basic conditions under which Israel incarcerates Palestinian and other terrorists that lead to the abduction of Israelis as bargaining chips. A Palestinian responsible for the deaths of, say, ten Israeli civilians is given ten life sentences and knows he or she will never be released unless there is a prisoner exchange. That terrorist’s fate thus becomes an incentive to abduct Israelis and negotiate an exchange. In contrast, an Israeli like Ami Popper who in 1990 murdered seven Palestinian civilians in cold blood, began after 17 years in prison to get weekends off to visit with the family he was allowed to establish while in prison, and can expect to be released after around 25. (We know about the weekend vacations because in 2007, driving without a license, he caused a horrific traffic accident on one of these furloughs, killing his own wife and children, for which he received a six-month sentence.) Not to mention run-of-the-mill Israeli rapists and murderers who are released even sooner.

There is no justification for giving Israeli criminals and terrorists the hope of release while denying that hope to Palestinians. A change of attitude on Israel’s part might render abductions like that of Shalit less likely. Instead, the Netanyahu government is currently threatening to worsen incarceration conditions for convicted terrorists.

One of the truly unfortunate aspects of the Shalit case is the circus-like publicity surrounding efforts to bring about Gilad’s release. I don’t envy the Shalit family’s public ordeal, which at times seems like a reality show from hell. Whether, in this day and age, there is any alternative course to mass public displays of protest and pressure on the government, I don’t know. But those displays merely strengthen the confidence of Hamas in demanding the release of so many hard-core terrorists in exchange for Gilad.

There is one thing we do know, or should know, on this fifth anniversary of Shalit’s abduction. After an exchange for Gilad is made, if the government of Israel and Israeli society don’t adopt a very different approach to Hamas, to the incarceration of terrorists and to bargaining with terrorist organizations, a repeat of the Shalit affair is inevitable.