Sderot's safety comes first

By Haim Baram, July 3, 2008

How far should Israel go to free Shalit?

The sobering-up process on Monday, June 30, was pretty horrendous for most Israelis. Half the nation had been glued to their TV sets on Sunday night, celebrating the victory of Spain over Germany in the marvellous European final; they were quickly stunned by the government’s decision to release the Lebanese arch-terrorist Samir Kuntar, the killer of a father and his two daughters in the northern town of Nahariya, back in 1979.

Israel will reportedly get a very scant reward for Kuntar and four less senior Hizbollah fighters. The two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose kidnap on July 12, 2006 triggered the Second Lebanon War, have been officially pronounced dead and only their remains will be returned. Some new information about Airman Ron Arad, held briefly by Hizbollah in 1986, will be an ironic bonus. It is unlikely to reveal much, let alone allaying the agony of his long-suffering family. The swap is an extremely unpopular move, since the nation has lost confidence in the decision-makers but, in opinion polls, people have given their reluctant consent to the deal out of sincere empathy with the families. Many Israelis have been sending their sons and daughters to serve in the army despite their growing scepticism about the efficiency and integrity of our leaders. Ehud Olmert and his deeply divided coalition government seem incapable of leading Israel towards peace and are deemed equally unreliable in taking us to war.

The core of the collective trauma surrounding the deal lies in the political division and the perceived moral bankruptcy of the nation. The viability of the swap is less of a concern to most Israelis than the more profound crisis, in which a lack of social cohesion has led them to feel decreasing solidarity with their state.

The Gilad Shalit affair is arguably the most glaring example of the psychological undercurrents tearing apart the delicate fabric of our society and undercutting our pretension to be a special nation, more egalitarian and more caring than most. Ten days before the sealing of the Hizbollah deal, Israel had to submit to military and political pressures and conclude a ceasefire with the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Up to then, Israel had tried to pretend that Hamas did not exist as a political entity. This policy has always been futile (similar to the practice of snubbing the PLO), ignoring political realities on the ground.

Once again, we have all paid the price for our government’s lack of political vision. The deal with Hamas has failed to secure the release of the Israeli POW Shalit, after two years of captivity in Gaza. The blow to our pride is devastating, and the outcry has some hysterical undertones. The swap with Hizbollah exacerbated the humiliation and despair. How come, asked many Israelis, we made such concessions for dead bodies but failed to do our utmost for Shalit, who is still alive?    

Personally, I am not preoccupied with the standard Israeli dilemma over the release of Palestinian fighters with “blood on their hands”. This has been a typical feature in every negotiation involving POWs all over the world, and the Palestinian candidates for a swap (in order to bring Shalit back to his family) are not the only war criminals. Many Israelis, including ministers, have blood on their hands and raising this point reeks of self-righteousness. But I still justify my government’s decision to reach a ceasefire deal with Hamas without the release of Shalit.

We must recognise the ideological complexities of this case. Some of my fellow left-wingers claim, with ample justification, that Shalit has been forsaken and his case neglected due to the collapse of the “caring society” in Israel and the demise of the social-democratic values. But anyone with a sense of egalitarianism cannot ignore the suffering of the denizens of the Negev in general and Sderot in particular, nor can they be indifferent to the fate of the heavily bombarded Palestinians in Gaza. If we reject the ceasefire because it does not include Shalit, this will mean neglecting the safety of many thousands of others.

The ceasefire can be regarded as a useful step towards political sanity vis-à-vis Hamas and a practical measure to alleviate the terrible hardship stemming from the war of attrition between Israel and Hamas. One can only hope that a secret dialogue between the parties will result, eventually, in a very happy reunion of the Shalit family.

Haim Baram is a columnist for Jerusalem’s Kol Hair weekly

    Last updated: 11:16am, July 7 2008