Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Should Israel do the Shalit deal?

Should Israel go ahead with a deal to free Gilad Shalit, if it involves the release of hundreds or thousands of terrorists, some of them with ‘blood on their hands’?

The heart says yes, the head says no.

What Shalit is going through hardly bears thinking about. This young, physically awkward boy - who according to his own father is painfully shy - has been held by terrorists in isolation in an unknown location, unable to see properly, with no contact with the outside world, without even access to the Red Cross, for 1,250 days. Very little is known about his physical condition but no one imagines he is being handled with kid gloves. Birthday after birthday after birthday in a Gaza hellhole - it will be a miracle if he is still completely sane.

We all want to see this poor boy home.

But then there is the price.

Some of the issues are common to all prisoner exchanges. Morally, is it right to release men responsible for some of the worst terror attacks in Israeli history - letting them, quite literally, get away with murder? Won’t they simply go back to planning other attacks, to finding other ways of hurting Israel?

Won’t giving in to terrorists’ demands simply encourage them to kidnap other soldiers (or civilians)? Should Israel be negotiating with terrorists at all?

Other considerations are unique to this particular deal.

Hamas is currently in a weakened state, isolated by the West, incapable of negotiating a unity deal with Fatah, presiding over an increasingly poor area compared to the West Bank. Granting them the Shalit deal will infinitely strengthen their hand, allowing them to claim to their domestic audience that they are the true leaders of the Palestinians and bringing back to Hamas ranks senior commanders with sophisticated military knowledge - and plenty of motivation. It will also be difficult for Israel to continue pressing the West to boycott Hamas when it becomes clear that Israel itself has negotiated with them. Nor will Israel find it easy to resist international calls to break the siege on Gaza, once it no longer has a kidnapped soldier there.

Meanwhile, on the West Bank, a Shalit deal credited to Hamas could be the death knell of the PA, which is already close to collapse. Israel will be forced to release hundreds of Fatah-affiliated terrorists as a gesture to President Abbas in order to prop him up. If - as some reports claim - Marwan Barghouti is included in the deal, this would help counter Hamas's revival; but he would pretty certainly finish off Abbas politically (as I discussed in late August)

. And who knows, ultimately, if Israel is not better off with the devil it knows? Particularly as Barghouti is now considered close to the Hamas leadership.

Strategically, this is a very, very bad deal for Israel. And at what point does Gilad Shalit’s life become more important than the strategic interests of the rest of the country’s population (and possibly their lives too - if the deal results in freed terrorists becoming active again)?

I do not envy Mr Netanyahu - who spent much of his political life preaching the need to be tough on terror - his decision. My gut is that he will have no choice but to pass the deal. Essentially, he has an obligation to Gilad Shalit, who was captured at a time when soldiers did reasonably expect, on the basis of past precedent, the country to redeem them. He has entered the hearts of the Israeli people and this is probably the last chance to free him. If this deal does not go through, his parents should worry for his life.

However, Mr Netanyahu will have a battle on his hands. Reading the reactions to Ben-Dror Yemini's column in Ma'ariv, in which he calls on Mr Netanyahu to reject the deal so as not to give in to terrorists, it is really striking how many of the comments agree. For all they feel for Gilad Shalit, many, many Israelis are willing to put the national interest first.

One thing is for sure. If Mr Netanyahu does go ahead, he must quickly act to make sure that such a deal could never be considered ever again. A commission headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar recently recommended that Israel should only exchange one prisoner per captive Israeli soldier; only give up bodies for dead soldiers and only give body parts for body parts. This must be enshrined in law (possibly made part of the Basic Law?), so that Hamas and Hizbollah know that further kidnappings will no longer yield them a great bounty of prisoners, will no longer be worthwhile.

And then the Israeli government has to stick to it, come what may. The country cannot allow itself to be held to ransom like this, ever again.

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