The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Deficiency Of Sunlight

Whether We View the Shalit Exchange as a Good Deal for Israel Depends on What We Decide We Value Most

Gilad Shalit finally returned home this week. Hamas militants captured Shalit inside Israel during a 2006 cross-border raid and imprisoned him in a secret underground location within the Gaza Strip for the past five years. Crowds in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila cheered his return. Initial exams indicated Shalit was in stable medical condition but still suffered from untreated shrapnel wounds received during his capture as well as complications from a deficiency of sunlight.

Israel had been negotiating with Hamas for Shalit’s release since his imprisonment. Egypt finally brokered a deal that exchanged him for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. On one side, Shalit’s family had spent years doggedly pushing for his release. On the other side, families of victims of the released Palestinians attempted to block the deal, arguing it thwarted justice. The Israeli supreme court decided to block the challenge, opening the door for Shalit’s return.

Freed soldier Gilad Shalit (center) is greeted by
Prime Minister Netanyahu upon his arrival in Israel

Cheering crowds in Gaza and the West Bank met the Palestinians exchanged for Shalit. The Arab world was thrilled, not only for their return but because it feels Hamas won big on this deal. “Israel was forced to pay the price,” crowed Khaled Mashaal, supreme leader of Hamas. In contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu grimly called the swap, “the best possible agreement that we could have obtained.”

The deal certainly was lopsided in terms of sheer numbers. In exchange for a single soldier of its own, Israel agreed to release over a thousand Palestinians – four hundred forty-seven immediately and another five hundred fifty in two months from now.

More galling, many of those released were far worse than innocent bystanders rounded up by Israeli security forces for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Among those already released was Yehya Al-Sinwar, a Hamas militant given three life sentences and an additional thirty years for killing Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. Others include Nasser Yatayma, involved in the 2002 suicide bombing of the Park Hotel in the city of Netanya that killed thirty people, and Ahlam Tamimi, involved in a 2001 Jerusalem pizzeria suicide bombing that killed fifteen people.

In fairness, the Palestinians also backed off from some of their initial demands. As a result, several terrorist architects, such as Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah ringleader of the savage Second Intifada, and Abbas Sayyad, organizer of the 2002 Passover attack on the Park Hotel, remain behind bars.

Before turning him over to Israeli officials, Egypt forced Shalit to do a controversial – some would say outrageous and disgusting – television interview, in which he was surrounded by many of the militants who had held him prisoner. At one point during the interview, Shalit said, “I really hope that this deal advances peace and not more military conflicts and wars between Israel and the Palestinians.” The Obama Administration also has expressed this wan hope.

However, all fear what Rainer Sollich, Middle East Bureau Chief for Deutsche Welle, recently wrote as the most likely outcome. “The opposite could happen. Hamas feels as if it is the victor in this unequal deal. Its militant course is being strengthened and encouraged . . . It wins back fighters. It gains political significance – and popularity.” An editorial in today’s Washington Post judges the deal will only “inject more poison into an already bitter standoff.”

A poll carried out by the Dahaf Institute and published Monday in the daily Yediot Ahronot showed an overwhelming seventy-nine percent of Israelis support the deal. Yet few are happy about it, beyond Shalit’s return. Many conservative Jews, inside and outside Israel, view it as anathema.

“One must sympathize with the Schalit family and the agony it endured ,” concedes Steven Goldberg, a Los Angeles trial lawyer in Frontpage Magazine. “Prime Minister [Netanyahu] and his Cabinet, however, have a more profound responsibility,” he goes on to reprimand. “They were obligated to resist emotional appeals and instead safeguard the people of Israel as a whole. They have failed abysmally . . . [This deal] will now mark our craven surrender to evil, to the shame of Israel and the entire Jewish nation.”

His colleague, Steven Plaut, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Haifa, goes even further in his condemnation. “It was a symbolic acquiescence by Israel to the terrorist point of view that has always insisted, much like the German Nazis, that murdering Jews is legitimate because Jewish life just ‘does not count,’ because Jews are sub-human.”

Nonsense, counters Hirsh Goodman, long-time Israeli journalist in the Jerusalem Post. “This is not about price . . . What it is about is that Israel never leaves a wounded soldier in the field, that its service men and women know – even if they are kept in the darkest dungeon, deep underground, no matter where – at home no effort will be spared to get them back.”

American jurist and political commentator Alan Dershowitz agrees. Writing at both Newsmax and the Huffington Post, he notes, “An important goal of terrorists is to force democracies to surrender their humanistic values.” Israel was not appeasing terrorists with this deal but courageously standing up for a cherished value, even at great political cost.

It is true that this deal may embolden Hamas to kidnap more Israelis. However, P. David Hornik, a freelance writer and translator in Beersheva Israel, shrugs that such “danger is inherent in being a Jewish, non-Muslim state in the Middle East, and fundamental to coping with it is a solidarity that goes to the deepest level of Israel’s ethos of survival in a hostile environment.”

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain recently got himself into some hot water over the Shalit affair as the result of an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Blitzer posed a hypothetical in which freeing an American soldier held captive for five years by terrorists meant, “ya gotta free everybody at Guantanamo Bay . . . could you see yourself as President authorizing that kind of transfer?” While stipulating he would have to consider the situation carefully, Cain replied, “I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer . . . I can make that call if I had to.”

Fellow candidates Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman piled on Cain for his remarks during their debate in Las Vegas. Cain was flustered and began backpedaling. “I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We have to lay that principle down first . . . Now, then you have to look at each individual situation and consider all the facts.”

Then, in a post-debate interview with Anderson Cooper, Cain stated he had misspoken. He insisted he would always have a policy of not negotiating with terrorists and therefore would never swap a captured American soldier for Gitmo detainees.

Hirsh would lump Cain as part of “the real problem,” along with Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Minister for Strategic Affairs and former career military officer, who was one of only three cabinet ministers voting against the Shalit exchange. He wonders what message this sent to Israel’s other soldiers. “Somehow I’m more worried about that, than not having to feed 1,000 terrorists three times a day,” he wryly concludes.

Faisal Al Qasim, a Syrian journalist, makes a similar argument. He refers to the Palestinians released in exchange for Shalit as “Shallots,” a colloquial Arabic word meaning “cheap shoes” and applied as a metaphor for things with little or no value.

“Why have the whole world including many Arab leaders been so busy trying to free Shalit when there are tens of thousands of Arab 'Shalloots' languishing in Israeli and other prisons unnoticed?” he opines in Gulf News. “Why are they so cheap and unimportant? . . . Have you ever seen an Arab government organizing a campaign to release one of its nationals from a foreign jail? . . . Have you ever seen an Arab government trying to get one of its citizens out of Guantanamo Bay camp? Not really. Have you ever seen an Arab regime trying to get its captives out of Israeli prisons? Forget about it.”

With this deal, Israel’s government sent the message that the life of one soldier was worth a thousand lives to them. In return, Hamas and Fatah sent the message that the lives of a thousand soldiers were worth nothing to them beyond the political hegemony they could buy. In a region where recent Arab Spring demonstrations suggest the common people desire and demand governments that respect their basic dignity, this deal may not be the complete triumph the Palestinian leadership wants to spin.

What implications does all this hold for the U.S. with our all-volunteer military? We expect soldiers to climb and stand guard atop the wall that separates us from our enemies. That climb might be all whole lot easier if each soldier knew their country was willing to sacrifice nearly as much for them as they are for it. Or is the message we mean to send that what we value most are martyrs to the justice of our cause? Because this sounds an awful lot like what the terrorists preach.

We all love democracy and we all support our troops but maybe this needs to be brought out into the glare of scrutiny to determine what these things really mean what we really value most. It is just possible that right now it is suffering from a deficiency of sunlight.

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