Israel is booming with excitement today — partially fueled by sheer political hype, and partially substantiated by semi-reliable leaks — over the possible release of abducted Israeli Soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit had been kidnapped into Gaza a couple of days before the start of the 2006 Lebanon war, and his fate has not been settled yet, neither via negotiations nor by the 2009 Gaza war. He has been in captivity for over 900 days, and the public is restless over his status and health.
Many soldiers returning from the Gaza operation expressed frustration over Israel’s decision to not make his release a precondition for withdrawing forces from Gaza. Today, many are demanding that none of the Gaza passages be opened as long as Shalit remains in captivity there, and some of the ministers have even publicly announced that they will vote against any such measure.
“There is a sense that we can afford to relax our criteria on the prisoner release, as any benefit to Hamas would be more than offset by the damage it sustained in Gaza,” said one Israeli security official.
The official said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wanted to clinch a deal before he is replaced in a February 10 election, though it was not clear whether the Israeli security cabinet could approve all of the names on the Hamas release roster.
Hamas insists no progress has been made regarding his release, but Israeli newspapers carried more hopeful headlines today. Israel is willing to pay a heavy price for Shalit’s release, including a prisoner swap which would set free many dangerous terrorists. Israel has a history of initial resolve over not paying above-market rates in exchange for abducted soldiers followed by eventual decisions to do just that – a cycle mystifying to many observers. As I wrote half a year ago regarding the return of the bodies of two soldiers kidnapped into Lebanon (the incident that ignited the war):
Emotions in Israel are high whenever a deal like this is under discussion. The public seems to want the “boys” to be returned at whatever price, while the government is always torn between conflicting advice from professionals…. When it comes to the return of hostages, Israel tends to throw all strategic considerations out of the window. The famous example of Entebbe-when Israeli commandos raided a Ugandan airport 32 years ago and liberated dozens of hostages in one of the most heroic forays of the Israel Defense Forces-was the exception, not the rule. The truth is that in most cases, Israel will pay any price to get its soldiers back.
Prime Minister Olmert started out his term determined to change the rules of this costly game. He failed. Israelis tend to see the release of kidnapped soldiers as a moral cause. If a deal is struck, there’s always some who bicker about the exorbitant price. But when a deal is on the table, government officials just can’t afford to vote against it. It would be a politically suicidal vote, and the enemy knows it.
The upcoming elections are also a factor. Shalit’s release is the one trump-card that Labor’s Ehud Barak and Kadima’s Tzipi Livni may acquire that could steal what now seems an almost certain victory from Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu. Being the opposition leader, Netanyahu can’t get any credit for the release – only Barack and Livni can share it (or, more likely, fight over it).
So — is it going to be yet another round of political maneuvers similar to the ones we witnessed prior to the release of the Lebanon-2006 abducted soldiers? Israel is hopeful because victory on the battlefield leaves Hamas short of leverage. Achieving the release of hundreds of Palestinian terrorists will provide Hamas with a desperately needed claim to victory. Hizbollah — while more successful in 2006 than Hamas has been in the latest confrontation, had similar motives — as Jonathan Spyer of the GLORIA Center remarked:
Indeed, some analysts have suggested that group leader Hassan Nasrallah accepted a less favourable deal than he had originally held out for, in order to conclude the negotiations as speedily as possible. What is clear is that the prisoner swap is having the desired effect for Hizbullah – rebuilding its legitimacy. Most (though not all) of the leaders of the pro-western and pro-Saudi March 14 movement appear to be accepting the portrayal of the swap as a victory for Lebanon, and the consequent depiction of the infanticidal [terrorist Samir] Kuntar as a Lebanese national hero.
Hamas’s post-war vindication is not what Israel needs now. However – Israel feels it can no longer delay the release of Shalit (if a deal is possible). Strategic blunder? Yes: the net result will be a boost to Hamas’s public image in the eyes of its constituency, and more incentives to kidnap Israeli soldiers in the future. But Israel also has another strategic matter to consider: the Gaza war has catalyzed a rare unity of purpose in Israel’s society. Having the public united against the enemy is a serious factor, and the exchange of terrorists for the release of Shalit and of future kidnapped is the price it seems willing to pay. That is, until an Israeli leader is convincing enough to reeducate the Israeli public and turn the tide of opinion against such costly deals.