A Time for National Dialogue

Even before the prisoner swap agreement was wrapped up, even before we knew Gilad Shalit was alive and well, Hamas began boasting of its victory and vowing to kidnap more Israeli soldiers. The Shalit abduction is proving a profitable enterprise for the Islamic terror group that controls Gaza. A Saudi sheikh and a cleric have offered a million dollar reward for kidnapping of another Israeli soldier.

Israeli security chiefs admitted they could not find a way over the past five years to mount a rescue and or even to capture some high value Hamas figures to force a trade, so the government felt it was compelled to cut a deal that is both highly popular and deeply divisive.

There is no Jew in Israel or abroad who did not rejoice in seeing Gilad Shalit step off that plane and into the arms of his parents.

After the reunion and the celebration – there were celebrations as well in the West Bank and Gaza, where the issue of Palestinian prisoners is a highly emotional one that generates as much anger toward Israel as any grievance – it is time for a national dialogue and some difficult decisions about how to deal with future abductions of Israelis. 

There are many difficult questions.  Should Israel negotiate with terrorists, as it has done so many times?  Is there a difference between the family interest and the national interest?  How will a change of policy impact the morale of soldiers? Are the obligations to soldiers different if they are conscripted, as in Israel, than if they are volunteers, as in the United States? Is it in the national security interest to say we will pay virtually any price, including putting hundreds of terrorists back on the streets, to bring home a single soldier? Does that encourage more kidnappings?

As a father I sympathize and rejoice with the Shalit family to have their son back home, but is it in Israel's long term interests interest to set free 1,027 terrorists, many with Israeli blood on their hands and with the high likelihood they will kill again?

This victory for Hamas comes at the expense of Fatah, the moderate secularists who, unlike Hamas, are prepared to negotiate peace with Israel and who have a proven record of security cooperation (in no small part because Hamas is their shared enemy that wants to overthrow both).

Hamas savored its victory, noting it won the release of prisoners from all factions, and it taunted Abbas as impotent.

Some see the deal as a payback by Israel for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to bypass direct peace negotiations with Israel and seek UN membership.  More likely the timing – the two sides have been close to a deal several times but one or the other backed away – is related to the upheaval in the region.

Hamas's ally in Syria is in turmoil, and Hamas is even considering moving its exiled leadership back to Gaza. Egypt played a helpful role in the deal, and it is not certain how much longer it might be willing the help if and when there is a transition to civilian government.  Even Turkey, which likes to trumpet its hostility toward Israel and its friendship with Hamas, contributed to the success, according to Israeli President Shimon Peres.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu typically tried to take credit for winning Shalit's release while ducking any criticism for negotiating with the kidnapers by saying he "inherited" the situation from his predecessor and he had no choice.  Shalit's release is widely popular and Netanyahu is getting credit as his liberator.

But that could change quickly if released prisoners return to terror and are responsible for more Israelis deaths.  The first to make sure he gets the blame will be two of his leading cabinet members – Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy PM Moshe Yaalon – who opposed the deal and covet his job.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the swap "the correct decision" but said that once the exchange is completed Israel should rethink its prisoner return policy.  "We need to change the rules from the ground up."  Other ministers expressed similar views.

Prof. Dan Schueftan of Haifa University is skeptical.  "If the policy is changed and the next kidnap victim is a Druze or Sephardi soldier, the government will be accused of discrimination," he said.

Shalit's parents campaign for "our son at any price" was understandable from their point of view, Schueftan said, but it is "emotional terrorism" and bad national policy.

The deal has the support of nearly 80 percent of Israelis; most opposition came, understandably, from families of Arab terror victims and from the hawkish right.

A man whose family was killed in a 2001 attack on a Jerusalem pizza parlor was arrested for defacing the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial in Tel Aviv and spray painting the words "price tag" and "release Yigal Amir," Rabin's assassin.

Someone broke into the home of Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman to protest the deal.  Others said the appropriate response should be to increase settlement construction, and there were demands for the release of Jewish terrorists responsible for attacks on Arabs as "balance."

The responsibility of leadership is not just to protect each soldier but to protect the nation, and this is an appropriate time for a national dialogue on how that is to be defined in the event of future abductions. Israeli columnist Yossi Klein Halevi said, "The prime minister’s job is to resist emotional pressure and ensure the nation’s security; a father’s job is to try to save his son, regardless of the consequences."

An Israeli think tank scholar told me,  "You cannot wish the sufferings of the Shalit family on your worst enemies, but you also cannot direct the policy of the state based on their plight, especially if it will endanger the welfare of millions of other citizens."

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.