Anything except war

By Yossi Sarid, July 4, 2008
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How far should Israel go to free Shalit?

‘Lay not your hand on the lad,” God said to Abraham in the book of Genesis. But last week, the former IDF Chief of Staff, Moshe Yaalon, suggested the opposite course of action: “Hostages should be sacrificed if the cost is too heavy.” Fortunately, the words of former generals in the army are no longer considered holy scripture in Israel.

“The exchange of hostages shouldn’t be achieved at any cost” is the primary argument of the government spokesmen; yet it is a feeble argument. In the public debate surrounding the prisoners exchange deals, bereaved families were sent out to publicly voice this claim, and two mountains of pain — those of the families of the hostages, who will do anything to see their sons released, and those of the families of the fallen, who do not want to see their children’s killers released — collided in a dreadful tragedy.

It will be obvious to any civilised, thinking person that there are some costs that should not be paid. Let’s imagine a rather absurd situation in which Hizbollah creates an unthinkable condition for the return of the Israeli captives: Israel’s agreement to the sacrifice of 156 soldiers and civilians and to 33 consecutive days of heavy shelling over half the country. This inordinate price could be paid on one condition only: if the Israeli government decided, of its own accord, to start a futile war in Lebanon, in a mission-impossible attempt to rescue the captured soldiers.

But Israel is not a terrorist organisation, even though some Israelis occasionally try to blur this vital distinction. And since it is not, it has to exchange live terrorists for dead soldiers. Their families are still alive, and their lives will be a living hell if they do not find out their sons’ fate. This is the only course of action open to a state that wishes to avoid regret and shame for its actions or failures. We may not be willing to pay “any cost” or make a deal “under any conditions”, but we must be willing to pay a very high price; this is the state’s duty and there is no choice but to pay it.

Another feeble argument is that if we release prisoners, the result will be a wave of kidnapping. As if the Hamas stepped down its kidnapping efforts after capturing Gilad Shalit. Will they stop trying as long as we have their men in our prisons? The incentive for kidnapping is not the release of prisoners, but the very presence of thousands of prisoners.

Another argument goes: if we release dangerous prisoners, they will quickly return to their evil ways of terror — and there are precedents. This is poor reasoning. Did we ever lack terrorists? We kill terrorists like flies on a daily basis, yet their number never drops. Every fallen terrorist is replaced by one or more standing. The situation on the ground makes the number of terrorists grow and it will continue to do so as long as the underlying conditions don’t change fundamentally. 

Fortune smiled on the Israeli government: the three families of Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon and in Gaza — Goldwasser, Regev and Shalit — are all of noble character. They do not know how to raise hell and pound the table. Here, we start to listen when someone starts yelling.

A long time ago, I met Eldad Regev’s brother in a television studio. He spoke beautifully, in a restrained, moderate fashion. After he finished, I told him: if you keep the measured, restrained tone, you won’t get to see Eldad any time soon — as Ron Arad’s family learned. Sometimes, I explained, an overdose of responsibility is irresponsible. Later, I thought that I shouldn’t have told him that.

If I knew the exact location of Gilad Shalit, I’d keep it a secret from the IDF commando forces, for fear of greater disaster to the kidnapped soldier and his saviours. Instead, I’d suggest getting a copy of the book Gilad Shalit wrote nine years ago, When the Sharks and the Fish First Met. He was 11 at the time and wrote how the fish and sharks decided to live together in peace, against their nature. One should ask, who are the sharks and who are the fish? The roles keep changing.

Perhaps, for lack of a better option, I should send the innocent book to the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem. There’s no more time to waste, and there’s no justification for dodging the decision after two years of captivity. It is time to release the goldfish before it is too late.

Yossi Sarid is Israel’s former Minister of Education. He is currently a columnist for Ha’aretz and a lecturer. He recently published Accordingly, We Are Here Assembled, a work of fiction

    Last updated: 12:15pm, July 7 2008

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