October 19, 2011
Number 10/11 #04
Kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is free after five years and four months in captivity in Gaza, and the elation in Israel is overwhelming. (An excellent collection of news and analysis on the release and its aftermath has been assembled by Britain’s Telegraph. Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s remarks welcoming Shalit home are here.) This Update focuses on the significance and aftermath of his release.
First up is Israeli thinktanker Daniel Gordis, who explains why the fate of Gilad Shalit has come to mean so much to Israelis. The central issue, he argues, is that this decision represented a return to certain core values of social solidarity that have long been central in Israel but seemed to be fading in recent years. He argues that at a time of growing uncertainty and difficulty abroad, and division internally, a return to these old-fashioned core values on which Israel was founded is essential to restore Israeli morale at this difficult time. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. Going even further in saluting the values that led to this difficult decision is Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston, who is rapturous over the lengths to which Israel and its leaders have gone to, in his words, “keep a promise… If you are lost on the field of battle, we will get you back. Whatever it takes.” Also seeing the best of Israel in the deal is former editor and author turned academic Hirsh Goodman.
Next up is veteran Australian Jewish leader Isi Leibler – who argues that, after the Shalit deal, Israel needs to re-think its stance on such exchanges and attempt to put in place structures that make sure such a lop-sided exchange never occurs again. He reveals all the considerable negative strategic consequences for Israel of the prisoner releases agreed to in exchange for Shalit, and argues, in contrast to Burston, that Israel must now “recognise that the concept that ‘we must pay any price’ is unsustainable.” He concludes that Israel must now urgently implement a series of recommendations for dealing with such situations, suggested by a committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar in 2009. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE. Making similar arguments but going even further is columnist Ari Shavit of Haaretz, who says Israel’s collective actions were “crazy” in the Shalit case, and with him now home, sanity on such issues must now be restored.
Similarly sceptical is Andrew Friedman, a former AIJAC analyst now at the Jerusalem Post, as well as historian Benny Morris.
Finally, we bring you a report on an aspect of Shalit’s release that is leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth of many Israelis – the Egyptian state TV interview Shalit was made to do before he was even allowed to call his parents. As Oren Kessler of the Jerusalem Post notes, this interview not only seemed cruel and exploitative toward a Shalit who looked both uncomfortable and unwell, it was also blatantly propagandistic, involving not only clear efforts to make Egypt look good, but blatant mistranslations of what Shalit said in response. For more on this problematic aspect of the Shalit saga, CLICK HERE. Additional pieces on the interview come from the London Telegraph and blogger Seth Mandel. The interview is here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- It would be fair to say that most families of terror victims in Israel have opposed or questioned the price in terrorists released paid to free Shalit – examples include Sherri Mandell, mother of Kobi Mandell, murdered in 2001 and Arnold and Frimet Roth, parents of Malki Roth, killed in the Sbarro Pizzeria bombing of 2001. However, even some of these bereaved family members support the agreement – for instance, Robi Damelin, the mother of David Damelin, killed in 2002 and Miki Goldwasser, mother of IDF reserve soldier Ehud Goldwasser, abducted and killed by Hezbollah in 2006.
- Israeli blogger Omri Ceren calls attention to the fact that Amnesty International, which pointedly refused to call for Shalit’s release, has reacted to the prisoner deal by issuing a statement mainly criticising Israeli detention policy. NGO Monitor has more on both this latest release, and the long history of supposed human rights NGOs ignoring or misusing the Shalit case.
- Israeli columnist Yaron London takes up the problematic implications of Israel’s decision to release 6 Israeli Arabs as part of the Shalit deal.
- Former Israeli politician Yehuda Ben Meir argues that, contrary to popular belief, Israel did demonstrate an ability to force some flexibility out of Hamas in the Shalit deal.
- Former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller pours cold water on the idea that the Shalit deal might lead to something more in terms of progress toward peace.
- The case of another prisoner, Israeli-American student Ilan Grapel, held in Egypt for several months on the basis of highly-doubtful allegations, remains unresolved, but there are reports he may be released soon – in exchange for 81 Egyptian prisoners.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- A list of some of the most notorious terrorists released by Israel in the Shalit deal.
- A correction to some misrepresentations about those prisoners.
- More on the Shalit debate.
- Jamie Hyams’ latest Media Week column – featuring former PM Malcolm Fraser.
Saving Shalit to Save Israel
No one in Israel is calling the agreement signed for Gilad Shalit’s freedom a good deal. On many levels it is terrible. Israel is releasing more than 1000 prisoners, several hundred of them hardened terrorists, for one soldier. For the first time, the Jewish state essentially acquiesced as a terrorist organization dictated the list of prisoners to be released, including several responsible for mass deaths of Israeli citizens, a notion that would once have been unthinkable. Israel may well have given its enemies incentive to kidnap more soldiers. And the terrorists now being released are likely to attack and kill Israelis in the future.
Despite these facts, the deal for Shalit passed a cabinet vote by an overwhelming margin (26 in favor and only three opposed), and the vast majority of Israeli citizens support it. In agreeing to this prisoner swap, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli public chose to return to their roots, to revive a central tenet of old-time Israeli ideology: we do not leave our sons in the field.
The tenet is as old as the country itself. It stems from the fact that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a citizens’ army, in which conscription is universal and every family knows that it could face the same tragedy as the Shalits. And in the army itself, the “stretcher march,” in which soldiers in training are ordered to carry one of their heaviest comrades on a stretcher up hills and down valleys for miles, is a formative ritual meant to instill one message: there is never a case in which soldiers cannot bring their wounded home.
This ethic is taught in other armies, too, but it resonates differently in Israel. From the moment of his capture, Gilad Shalit has been a household name. Compare this to the silence in the United States regarding Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held hostage by the Taliban since June 2009. Ever since Shalit’s kidnapping, Israeli society has been wracked by a sense that it failed in its obligation to him.
With Israel’s international standing crumbling and its internal cohesion fraying, Netanyahu urgently needed to restore Israeli morale.
Bringing Shalit home, the costs of the agreement with Hamas notwithstanding, is thus a fulfillment of an honored tradition. And it comes at a time when many of Israel’s old assumptions about its surroundings no longer hold. As the country struggles to navigate the economic and political upheavals in the Middle East and across the world, the agreement represents a return to Israel’s founding values — an opportunity for politicians and citizens alike to reassure themselves that, in some ways, today’s Israel is still the same country in which many of them were raised.
The Shalit agreement was prompted by the Israeli security establishment’s realization that it could not rescue its captive soldier. The very incident in which Shalit was captured — a cross-border Hamas raid from Gaza — was an abject failure for the IDF. In the five years since the kidnapping, the same military that destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in June 1967 and that rescued over one hundred hostages from Entebbe, Uganda in 1976 continuously told the government that it had no means of freeing a soldier being held just beyond the border. Admittedly, over the past generation, Israel’s enemies have become far more sophisticated. But this deal, along with Israel’s lack of military options to address the Iranian nuclear threat, has left Israelis feeling an unfamiliar sense of weakness.
That unease has only been compounded by the tumult of the Arab Spring. Previously, when Israel enjoyed close relationships with Egypt and Jordan and quiet on its border with Syria, it could focus almost exclusively on the security threats posed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. But with the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt, Bashar al-Assad’s regime slipping in Syria, and turmoil spreading in Jordan, Israel is operating in uncharted territory, and its people know it; the anxiety on the street is palpable.
Making matters worse, the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations exposed the fact that Israel is more marginalized on the global stage than ever before. And Turkey, once a stalwart ally, has recently turned strongly against it. As it lost friends across the region and around the world, Jerusalem began to wonder whether it could successfully broker a Shalit deal without them. It decided to act while the political map remained familiar.
The Palestinian statehood initiative also upended the notion that while Hamas was a terrorist organization with which Israel could not negotiate, Fatah was the party that would eventually strike a deal. Since Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008, Hamas has been more or less quiet. Although there have been rocket attacks and a cross-border strike from Egypt that may have involved elements from Gaza, those incidents were quickly quelled by Hamas. Yet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand for statehood at the UN nearly dealt Israel a significant blow. Should he have achieved recognition, Abbas could have pushed for sanctions on Israel for occupying another member of the General Assembly and pursued claims against it in international courts.
Furthermore, in his speech before the UN General Assembly, Abbas left Israelis with little hope for peace. His refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to drop his demand for the right of return for Palestinian refugees into Israel proper made clear that the conflict is not about to be resolved. Israelis recognized that they would have to learn to live with this struggle, not dream of its resolution. For many, that means periodically swallowing agreements such as the swap for Shalit. To maintain the legitimacy needed to draft its sons into an army that may well be at war for generations, Israel’s government needed to show that it remains committed to bringing them home at any cost.
Israel’s predicament on the international front has been accompanied by social unrest at home. A summer of massive street protests across the country began because of grievances about the cost of housing but soon incorporated complaints about the rising prices of schooling, food, and raising children, as well as a myriad of other issues. The demonstrations accused Israel of abandoning social justice, another long-standing principle of Zionism. A strike by Israel’s doctors demanding more reasonable hours and increased pay still threatens to cripple the country’s public hospitals, to the point that the government has threatened to import foreign physicians. And thanks to the so-called price tag attacks — acts of vengeance by extremist Israeli settlers on Palestinians and Arabs, including the burning of a mosque in northern Israel this past month — racial tensions between Jews and Arabs have been on the rise, leaving Israelis disgusted and worried. All this social discord over the last several months has exposed fissures in a country that once prided itself on solidarity.
With Israel’s international standing crumbling and its internal cohesion fraying, Netanyahu, whose own political position was becoming tenuous, urgently needed to restore Israeli morale. He had to show that he could make tough decisions and shift the focus away from the country’s troubles to a foundational value that could reunite it. By striking the agreement to return Shalit, he succeeded. Netanyahu reminded the country of at least some of the core values that have always been critical to its ability to persevere — values never more critical than now, as Israel’s enemies multiply and its social fabric decays.
Ironically, the cabinet voted for the Shalit agreement 25 years to the day after Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad was shot down over Lebanon, never to be seen again. Israelis decided not to re-enact that horrific affair, with the many false hopes of his return, and all of its desperation. They resolved to make a terrible deal and a painful one, and in so doing recaptured just a bit of the Israel that once was, while they still could.
Daniel Gordis is President of the Shalem Foundation and a senior fellow at the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem.
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By ISI LEIBLER
Jerusalem Post, 10/16/2011 23:11
The ‘pay any price’ model for hostages is simply unsustainable, capitulating to disproportionate demands will inevitably culminate in greater disasters.
The liberation of Gilad Schalit on the holiday of Succot after five cruel years of incarceration is the outcome of a major conflict between the heart and the mind in which turbulent emotions triumphed. That the nightmare was ending sent waves of euphoria and relief throughout the nation. Each of us, including those bitterly opposed to the agreement consummated with Hamas, identifies with Schalit, not so much as a hero but as though he were our own son.
The deal epitomizes the mitzva of pidyon shvuim – the obligation we have to ransom captives – that was traditionally regarded by Jews as a priority. It reflects the humanity and concern for one another that has personified the Jewish people over years of persecution and isolation. No other country would conceivably act in this manner and it reveals the compassion Israelis share and the lengths they will go to not to forsake their sons on the battlefield.
The popularity of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – in the short term – will undoubtedly rise dramatically. Despite vociferous critics, the deal was enthusiastically endorsed by the vast majority of Israelis, whose emotional frailties had been incessantly laid bare by our irresponsible media.
Netanyahu inherited the problem from Ehud Olmert, who at one stage had conceded most of the ground to Hamas but ultimately got cold feet and backed out. Thus the task fell to Netanyahu, who had to cross the very red lines he himself had drawn and vowed never to breach. Nobody can envy the agonizing ordeal Netanyahu must have undergone before making such a fateful judgment that ran diametrically counter to his basic principles.
Although we universally rejoice and celebrate the end of this long and painful national trauma, as with so many aspects of life in Israel there are bitter as well as sweet aspects to the outcome. Not the least of which is the unbearable agony inflicted on the families of those murdered as they witness the vile, unrepentant butchers of their loved ones being “liberated” and hailed as heroes.
If we are to undertake remedial steps to avert similar situations from arising in the future, which could inflict even more severe dilemmas of this nature, we must first be willing to face up to the consequences of this capitulation to Hamas.
The exchange of 1,027 terrorists, including the most cruel and barbaric mass-murderers and masterminds of major terrorist attacks plus six Israeli Arab terrorists, in return for one Israeli soldier, is not merely a stunning victory for Hamas and global terrorism. It also conveys a number of other disconcerting messages that will undoubtedly return to haunt us.
First, Hamas can now show conclusively that murder and terror are infinitely more effective than negotiation. The exchange will embolden terrorists throughout the world and encourage them to intensify their efforts. Indeed, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has repeatedly stated that past precedents demonstrate that the release of these killers will have deadly future consequences and undoubtedly facilitate the murder of many other Israelis. In fact, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal explicitly boasted that “those released will return to armed struggle. It is a great national achievement.”
The full impact will only become apparent to us in the weeks to come, when the world is subjected to Hamas-sponsored victory celebrations in which the murderers will be paraded in the streets as heroes.
Second, by exposing the “soft” side or “Achilles’ heel” of an otherwise tough Israeli adversary, Hamas (and Fatah) share a clear incentive to exert every effort and make every sacrifice to kidnap additional Israeli hostages in order to impose new demands.
Third, it will be much easier to recruit terrorists who believe that no matter how many Israelis they kill, if apprehended there is every likelihood that they will be released.
Fourth, Hamas has undoubtedly displaced the PA and demonstrated that it was able to force Israel and other states to negotiate and thus provide itself with legitimacy. Indeed, Hamas, which remains adamantly committed to terrorism and the total destruction of Israel, has now emerged as the dominant face of a future Palestinian state.
Fifth, this is also a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent organization, which is emerging as the principal power broker in Egypt. The new Egyptian government will therefore impose far greater pressure on Israel in relation to Hamas than was the case during the Mubarak era. Israel must also factor in Turkey, which in addition to Iran has now emerged as a vociferous supporter of Hamas.
Fortunately, the IDF has sufficient deterrent power to discourage direct hostilities. But there will be greater diplomatic pressure, and a rejuvenated Hamas as well as other terrorist groups can be expected to invest enormous efforts in intensifying their war against us at all levels.
In such an environment the government must gird itself for the future. We must never again permit the deliverance of one Israeli – either soldier or citizen – to jeopardize our national security. We must revisit the judicial committee initiated by former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar in mid-2009, which called for regulations designed to ensure that future hostage deals do not become prey to the passions and media frenzy that drove this deal. The findings had been shelved because of the emotions surrounding Schalit. Now would be an appropriate time to try to formulate these principles in a more objective and rational environment and if possible have them written into law by the Knesset.
We must recognize that the concept that “we must pay any price” is unsustainable. A state under siege must not allow itself to be subjected to blackmail and extortion by terrorists.
There is simply no end to such behavior. These barbarians’ lust for blood is insatiable. Continuing to capitulate to their excessively disproportionate demands will inevitably culminate in greater disasters.
By OREN KESSLER
Jerusalem Post, 18/10/2011
Israeli officials described the interview as “exploitative”; they could have added amateurish, propagandistic and cruel.
Israeli officials described Gilad Schalit’s first interview after his release as “exploitative.” They could have added amateurish, propagandistic, opportunistic and downright cruel.
Tuesday’s travesty – carried live on state-run TV – was conducted by Shahira Amin, a leading Egyptian journalist who in February quit the channel for its skewed coverage of the popular protests that unseated president Hosni Mubarak. That Amin now appears to be doing Cairo’s bidding bodes ill for hopes the “new Egypt” would usher in the first free media environment in the post-colonial Arab world
The notion that Schalit agreed to give Nile TV an interview of his own free will beggars belief. Forcing him to do so immediately after his release from Gaza – before seeing medical staff, much less an Israeli representative or his family – is in itself an apparent breach of journalistic ethics.
That issue aside, more than a few of Amin’s questions ran the gamut from fatuous to sadistic.
“During all that time of captivity, you did just one video to tell the world and your family that you’re alive,” she tells the soldier. “Why just once? Why didn’t it happen again?”
Rather than letting him answer, however, Schalit’s Hamas minder-cum-interpreter scolds Amin for asking the same question twice (a peculiar accusation, given the footage shows the question hadn’t been asked before).
The resulting argument between interviewer and minder is one of the interview’s more regrettable scenes. Amin says Schalit appears unwell, and “that’s why I’m asking the question again” – as if drilling him repeatedly will have a salutary effect. The question is itself absurd, roughly tantamount to asking a hostage victim why he or she didn’t escape sooner.
Amin’s subsequent question is little better: “It was the Egyptian national security that mediated for your release. There were previous failed mediation efforts, including one by the Germans. Why do you think that this time round, the mediation was a success, and what would you like to tell the Egyptian authorities?”
The reporter is seated beside an Egyptian flag – as if she were not the interviewer but an Egyptian government interviewee. Schalit, by contrast, sits next to a houseplant. Throughout the 12-minute ordeal, the soldier breathes heavily, his eyes either downcast or darting sideways and his tone of voice anxious.
Struggling to reply, Schalit mumbles, “I think the Egyptians succeeded because they’re on good relations both with Hamas and with Israel.” He could well have said, “Don’t use me as a prop for Egyptian propaganda. I haven’t a clue how the mediations were conducted, given I know nothing about anything that has happened over the last five years. Next question?”
Amin proceeds to ask Schalit what “lessons” he learned in captivity. After asking for the question to be repeated, he says he believes a deal could have been reached sooner. Here the Hamas minder renders his response as praise for reaching a deal “in such short time” – a mistranslation repeated by the BBC’s own interpreter.
“Gilad, you know what it’s like to be in captivity,” Amin continues as the painful charade drags on. “There are more than 4,000 Palestinians still languishing in Israeli jails. Will you help campaign for their release?”
Schalit’s answer, after a few seconds’ stunned silence, is superior: “I’d be very happy if they were released,” he says, then adds the caveat, “provided they don’t return to fighting Israel.”
Again, the Egyptian interpreter fails to translate the sentence’s second clause, and again the omission is repeated by the BBC’s translator, though he too was apparently translating from Hebrew in real-time. “I will be very happy for the prisoners to go free, so that they can be able to go back to their families, loved ones and territory. It will give me great happiness if this happens,” the BBC’s interpreter relays.
Yonit Levi is the Channel 2 News presenter who throughout Tuesday’s coverage waxed poetic over Schalit’s every step, shunting aside the sensitivities of bereaved families or the thought that the lopsided prisoner exchange could spawn further acts of terrorism. In reacting to the Egyptian interview, however, she was spot-on: the “bizarre” spectacle, she said, “was borderline abusive.”
On his Twitter feed, Adel Abdel Ghafar, an Egyptian graduate student based in Australia, summed it up better still: “After 5 years in captivity, Schalit has to go through one last form of torture: an interview with Egyptian Public TV.”