People of the year: JPost special
The families of the three kidnapped IDF soldiers - Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Gilad Regev - are all convinced that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is willing to free Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners to get the soldiers back.
"Everyone in Israel knows we have to release prisoners to free the soldiers, it's just that politicians have to make certain kinds of statements to the media," said Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, in an interview at the Ambassador Hotel in east Jerusalem following a news conference before the Arab media in which he appealed to Hizbullah to release his son in the name of "the Islamic value of generosity to prisoners."
Shlomo Goldwasser, father of Ehud, noted
in a telephone interview that when he joined the families of the other kidnapped soldiers at a September 7 meeting with Olmert, the prime minister "did not utter the term 'unconditional release,'" which was Israel's demand of the kidnappers following Shalit's capture on the Gazan border by Palestinian guerrillas on June 25, and Hizbullah's kidnapping of Goldwasser and Regev on July 12.
Benny Regev, brother of Eldad, said over the phone that during the families' meeting with Olmert in his Tel Aviv office, the prime minister "said he was prepared to negotiate [for the soldiers' release]. This means he's ready to give up prisoners."
Yet an official in the Prime Minister's Office, when asked whether Olmert was actually sticking to his stated policy of no negotiations and no prisoner exchanges for the kidnapped soldiers, replied, "The policy remains unconditional release. It means exactly what it sounds like. That's what the policy was and that's what it is."
Maybe. But it's hard not to have a sneaking suspicion that such a statement, as Noam Shalit says, is for media consumption, or to broadcast a tough negotiating stance to the kidnappers, but that in fact the government is prepared to trade prisoners with terrorists - if it isn't already negotiating with the kidnappers, either directly or through third parties. Olmert has appointed former deputy Shin Bet chief Ofer Dekel to handle the matter of the soldiers' "return," so he must be talking about something with somebody.
Olmert's original idea, or at least the one he put forward in his resolute-sounding speeches during the summer, was seemingly that the IDF would pound the Palestinians and Lebanese so relentlessly that the kidnappers would be forced to give up the three soldiers and beg, or sue, for peace.
In the martial mood of those early weeks, it seemed to many Israelis a feasible policy. Gilad Regev's older brother Benny, 34, an accountant from Kiyrat Motzkin, was one of them. "I hoped that the war would bring their release," he says.
But neither Shlomo Goldwasser, 59, a merchant seaman from Nahariya, nor Noam Shalit, 52, an accountant from the Galilee community of Mitzpe Hila, ever bought the official line.
"When, at the beginning, he used the term 'unconditional release,' I was shocked," said Goldwasser. "I knew it wasn't doable, and that it left the kidnappers no incentive to keep them alive - if they're not getting anything in return for the hostages, why should they keep them alive?
"I didn't delude myself that military action could free them," he continues. "I had some hope that after the war ended there would be negotiations and an exchange - all wars in the past ended with prisoner exchanges - but that didn't happen."
As far as Shalit is concerned, Olmert is hedging on a commitment he made during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman a couple of weeks before Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. "Olmert said he'll free prisoners as a humanitarian gesture for the holidays [the month of Ramadan, beginning September 24, culminating in Id el Fitr October 24]. Here is his opportunity."
AFTER SHALIT'S kidnapping, and especially after Regev's and Goldwasser's kidnappings two weeks later, there seemed to be a consensus that Israel had been too desperate in the past to get its hostages back, and the result had been: 1) that too many terrorists had been released from prison only to return to their bloody work; and 2) the promise of the wholesale release of prisoners acted as an invitation from Israel to the enemy to commit further kidnappings. This consensus was echoed in Olmert's early vow not to negotiate for the release of the three soldiers, and to accept only unconditional release.
As the war dragged on, though, and the three soldiers remained in captivity - and with Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal both insisting that Israel would never see the trio without freeing Palestinian and Lebanese security prisoners in return - the hardline consensus seemed to weaken.
But with the three soldiers and their families constantly in the national spotlight, this was inevitable. It is impossible for the government to stand pat and wait for a telephone call from Nasrallah's and Meshal's representatives, knowing that it will probably never come, when the plight of the three soldiers and their families is uppermost in the nation's collective mind.
Kofi Annan, Tony Blair and Jesse Jackson are just a few of the international dignitaries who have met with the families on their visits to Israel. The two family members who've gained the highest profiles are Noam Shalit, who described his religious appeal to the kidnappers as an exercise in "alternative action" to free the hostages, and Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud's wife, whose articulateness and engaging personality has kept her busy abroad making public appeals for the soldiers' release.
Still, it is difficult for Israelis, and not only Olmert, to admit that the kidnappers have the country over a barrel, and that the country is going to have to pay a heavy price to get its hostages back. An illustration of this uneasiness came at the rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on August 31, when 60,000 people joined the families of the kidnapped soldiers to demand that the government bring them home.
However, there was no agreed-upon demand as to how the government should achieve that. There was no demand that the government release enemy prisoners to get them back - probably because not all the 60,000 protesters, not to mention the nation at large, are comfortable about saying that. It broadcasts a willingness to "give in" to blackmail, to award a "prize for terror."
Asked why, if the three families were united in urging a prisoner release to win the three soldiers' freedom, the Rabin Square rally didn't make that its explicit demand, Goldwasser replied that during preparations for the event, "The issue of a single slogan didn't arise. The message we sent to Olmert was that people want a resolution of this crisis. How to achieve it is the government's decision."
It is an extremely difficult one. In the past, when Israeli governments released Arab prisoners to get back Israeli POWs or kidnapped soldiers, the deals were made with Arab states after a ceasefire had been reached to conclude a war, or, if the deals were made with terrorist groups, they came at least a year after the Israelis had been captured.
Never has Israel given in to demands to release enemy prisoners immediately after a kidnapping - as was demanded following the capture of Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev. Official thinking is that to give in to kidnappers' demands immediately would be too blatant a reward to the terrorists, too generous an invitation to kidnap again. On occasion, this refusal to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners ended with a successful Israeli commando raid that killed the kidnappers and freed the hostages, such as at Entebbe and in the Bus 300 capture.
Other times, though, the refusal ended with the kidnappers killing the hostages, such as at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Ma'alot massacre (1974), and the attempted rescue of Nachshon Wachsman (1994).
This defiant posture has at times been mistaken for the standard Israeli policy, and that dealing with terrorists has been a deviation from it. Barbara Walters, in her question about the Iranian hostage crisis to 1980 presidential debaters Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, alluded to this Israeli reputation. "Other countries have policies that determine how they will respond. Israel, for example, considers hostages like soldiers and will not negotiate with terrorists," Walters reminded the candidates.
BUT SHE was wrong. In mid-1979, Israel released 75 Lebanese guerrillas in exchange for an IDF soldier who had been captured during the Litani operation a year before. And Walters would be proven wrong even more dramatically in the years that followed.
Critics of Israel's willingness to execute a deal for the release of kidnapped soldiers commonly point to the 1985 "Jibril deal" as the original sin. On May 20 of that year, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian security prisoners, including Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to Palestinian terrorist commander Ahmed Jibril in return for three IDF soldiers captured early in the Lebanon War.
However, in the year before that, Israel released 291 Syrian soldiers and 13 Syrian civilians captured during the war, as well as the remains of 74 Syrian soldiers in return for three IDF soldiers, three Israeli civilians and the remains of five soldiers.
And in the year before that, 1983, Israel traded 4,700 Palestinian prisoners to Fatah in return for six IDF soldiers.
Later, of course, Israel would release Yassin a second time in return for the two Mossad agents imprisoned in Amman after their botched attempt to assassinate Meshal - a decision that embittered the Wachsman family, which had implored prime minister Yitzhak Rabin three years earlier to release Yassin before their son was killed, along with commando Nir Poraz, in the failed raid.
And in 2004, there followed what is widely considered the least successful prisoners-for-hostage swap Israel ever made: giving Nasrallah 436 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of the highly dubious businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum, as well as the remains of three IDF soldiers. The move turned Nasrallah into an even greater hero than he already was.
"We didn't invent the idea of releasing prisoners," noted Noam Shalit.
THE WEIGHING of the lives of kidnapped Israelis vs. the safety of Israelis at large doesn't seem an easy task for the families, either. While they urge the government to take the humane view and negotiate for the release of the three soldiers, they all criticized the government for agreeing to lift the embargo on Lebanon - a measure aimed at keeping the cease-fire from breaking down - because it could allow the kidnappers of Goldwasser and Regev to spirit them out of Lebanon - if that's where they're still being held. And Benny Regev not only criticized the lifting of the embargo but also the acceptance of the cease-fire. because Olmert didn't insist on immediate implementation of the clause calling for the soldiers' unconditional release.
To those who say Israel should enter peace negotiations with Syria as a means of winning Goldwasser's and Regev's release, Shlomo Goldwasser is all for it.
"I don't think acts of war can free prisoners. If it will help get them back, I'm in favor of negotiations with Syria, with the Pope, with anyone," Goldwasser said.
And to those who say Israel should negotiate with a Palestinian government including Hamas to win Shalit's release, Noam Shalit says this amounts to putting the horse before the cart.
"There will be no Palestinian unity government as long as an Israeli soldier is being held in Palestinian territory," Shalit said, noting that his son's captivity is a divisive issue between the leadership of Hamas and Abbas, and that it is keeping the PA isolated from Israel and the Western world.
As for having confidence in the Israeli government's willingness and ability to make the deal to bring the kidnapped soldiers home, representatives of the three families express somewhat differing opinions.
"Yes, I have confidence," said Shlomo Goldwasser. "I believe that things are being done. The prime minister appointed a very trustworthy individual in Ofer Dekel, and I know that he's trying."
Benny Regev sounded more reserved, "I have faith in the government's desire to find a solution, but we saw twice already, with the cease-fire and the lifting of the embargo, that they didn't stand by their commitment."
And Noam Shalit said, "I hope that they're doing everything they can."