Interviewed last night by ABC Lateline‘s Ali Moore, former Haaretz editor David Landau, who once infamously told then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he wished to see Israel “raped” in a US intervention forcibly imposing a settlement to the conflict, expressed his horror at the “weakness” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is displaying to the world. According to Landau, Netanyahu did so through his sudden reversal of his previous refusal to agree to a prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit.
I find myself in a strange and invidious situation because I’m not naturally of the right. I’m very much of the peace camp of the side of the sort of, so to speak, political spectrum that’s always encouraged dealing with the Palestinians in the hope of making a final peace deal with the Palestinians, yet I find myself frankly horrified and, as an Israeli, also mortified by this shameless turnabout by the prime minister, Mr Netanyahu – who, for the last two-and-a-half years has been explaining why we must not make a lopsided deal with the Hamas, why we must not … why we must be cruel, if you like, to the individual captive soldier Gilad Shalit on behalf of all the people who are yet or may yet or may well yet die or be maimed in the future by Hamas terrorism, and now suddenly he’s turned right around and he’s busy explaining to the people – and I must admit, with a great deal of success – why this is the right thing to do.
So I, standing and looking at him from the side, find myself as an Israeli, deeply concerned that that kind of tergiversation by a country radiates weakness, a sort of softness at the core. [emphasis added]
What was not mentioned in the interview is that Landau is currently reporting for The Economist as their Israel correspondent. In that role, Landau has not been nearly as concerned with Israel’s ostensible strength, nor with Netanyahu maintaining a consistent position. For example, he has called for Netanyahu to abandon the consistent policy of every Israeli government, as well as US administrations, Australian governments and most other key players, of refusing to negotiate with the designated terrorist organisation Hamas until it recognises Israel’s right to exist.
The Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu has rubbished the Palestinian deal, declaring that it will shun any Palestinian administration that includes or is backed by the Islamists of Hamas, because it doggedly refuses to recognise Israel. If he sticks to his word, the prospect of meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the near future is zero. Mr Netanyahu’s loathing of Hamas is understandable, yet he is wrong to scorn Palestinian reconciliation. The Hamas-Fatah deal is good news, because peace between Palestinians could be a stepping stone on the road to peace with Israel.
Moreover, while Landau’s view that the Shalit exchange is not worth the cost is shared by a minority of Israelis, the extent of Landau’s attack on Netanyahu – accusing him of “shamelessly… cashing in” on the good will the exchange created – seems rather excessive. While Netanyahu was strongly critical of such prisoner exchanges in his 1995 book on terrorism, in which he asserted that such agreements create an incentive for more terrorism, Netanyahu did not stick rigidly to this view when faced with the dilemma of Shalit almost 15 years later. Landau’s implication that Netanyahu has spent the last 2 and a half years rejecting any “lop-sided” deal for Shalit’s release is quite simply false. In fact negotiations for his release have reportedly been continuing on and off for years, with only question being not whether the deal would be lop-sided, but rather how lop-sided it would end-up. Netanyahu was not completely up-front on his position as publicly announcing how far he was willing to go in an agreement would have been very a poor negotiation strategy and encouraged Hamas to dig in their heels or raise their demands (which were in fact significantly lowered between Shalit’s capture and the actual agreement).
That Netanyahu’s decision has been so well received in Israel is certainly difficult for non-Israeli minds to comprehend. Past experience suggests that the Australian government would be unlikely to go to such lengths to free one of our own. For example, when Australian journalist Nigel Brennan was kidnapped in 2008, his family were forced to raise the ransom fee themselves and Michael Ware, another Australian journalist who was captured by Al Qaeda in Iraq and then miraculously released, also received relatively little domestic support.
Writing in London’s The Daily Telegraph, Stephen Pollard has given an appropriate comparison to help readers get their heads around the scale of the deal just made. As he asks, would the British government ever consider freeing the planners of the 7/7 bombings in order to secure the release of one British citizen, let alone hundreds more? He goes on to explain the incredible intimacy of Israeli society that leads to such a deal being not only possible, but overwhelmingly popular.
On any objective criteria, that represents a triumph for Hamas. Even more so when you realise that these were exactly the terms Hamas demanded five years ago when Shalit was seized. Five years of captivity and yet Israel has gained no better a deal than if it had acceded at the outset.
… Imagine that, somehow, the perpetrators of the July 2005 London bombings had survived and been imprisoned. Then imagine that there were another thousand such al-Qaeda prisoners who had murdered British citizens in cold blood. No British government could contemplate releasing them in order to secure the return of a single hostage soldier. Yet in Israel, polls have recorded 79 per cent support for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to the exchange.
… The sense of bonding this gives to Israeli society defines Israel as a nation. All citizens have, at various times, been soldiers. So when one is captured, it is not simply a distant tragedy, confined in its full impact to military families. It is a tragedy for the whole nation. That is why what is, objectively, a heavy defeat is seen very differently within Israel. The calculus is based on a wholly separate set of values, with the overriding imperative of bringing soldiers home.
Every soldier has a mother and father, and the Shalits have been proxies for all of Israel through their years of endurance. The parents of Israel Defense Force soldiers expect the government to know no limit to the lengths it will go to protect its troops. Yitzhak Rabin released 1,150 terrorists for the return of three soldiers. The message rang out then, too, that kidnapping Israelis works. But as with Mr Netanyahu now, he was not pilloried but praised.
Another insight into the Israeli mindset is given by William Kolbrener in The Washington Post, who uses his personal experiences to explain how Shalit is more than just a soldier to the Israeli public.
Riding on a public bus in Jerusalem for an American is a form of culture shock: the chaotic sprawl at the bus-stop instead of a line, the pushing and invasion of personal space. Israelis, let’s face it, have an international reputation for being rude. On the bus, as the driver passes a stop or closes the doors prematurely, the chorus of protests echo: “Rak rega! will you wait a minute?!?” Sometimes he listens. And on the bus, there is never quiet or privacy, that hovering silence that one usually feels on public transport in other cities. Carrying my infant daughter in a baby-sling, I would be offered endless instruction on how to secure her properly: “She is not getting enough air!”; “you are bending her neck!”; “where’s your wife? Or: the time when the bus lurches to a halt, horns honking, passengers shouting, the surly driver now out of his seat, getting off the bus, and as passengers look on, and the traffic increasingly tangled, he guides an old man with a cane across the street.
In offering the rationale for the exchange of Gilad Shalit – one lone prisoner held by Hamas on the Gaza Strip after his kidnap on the border of Lebanon 1,941 days ago – for 1,027 prisoners, one Israeli commentator pointed to the “victory of good-old Israeli solidarity.” But solidarity suggests politics. The cafes in Israel this morning – a Jewish holiday, usually a time of bustling activity – are not empty because of politics. The hiking trails and parks, teeming with visitors this time of year, are not abandoned because of politics. Life has come to a standstill in Israel for the same reasons that living in Israel – just taking a bus for example – can be so maddening. What makes possible the rudeness, that violation of personal space, but also acts of surprising generosity, is intimacy and connection, making Gilad’s return not just a moment of political solidarity, but indescribably intense communal emotion.
While Landau’s assault on Netanyahu (of whom he is a long-standing critic) smacks of a partisan agenda rather than sincere concern for Hamas’ perception of Israel, there is no doubt that paying such an enormous price will make Israel appear soft to in some circles. That said, the willingness of a nation that has suffered from a drawn out and brutal terror campaign to release unapologetic murderers in exchange for one of their own, whatever the future risks, could surely be seen as a sign of strength and courage. When the current elation dies down, there will no doubt be concern that Israel has weakened its strategic position. However, the Israeli people will face future dangers in the knowledge that their leaders will always do everything possible in order to ensure the safety of every last citizen; an attitude that is unimaginable in Palestine or any of the other undemocratic states in Israel’s neighbourhood.