Since then-Corporal Gilad Schalit was kidnapped in June 2006, Israeli and foreign media have reported on at least half a dozen different occasions, most recently last week, that a deal for his release was "imminent," or would be concluded "within days" or "by the weekend."
Yet as is painfully clear to all, none of these reports turned out to be true. Schalit remains in captivity, while his parents and the rest of the nation wait to learn if and when he'll be released and at what cost.
Understandably, the cost, in real and potential terms, has been the focus of most of the impassioned public and private debate surrounding this issue. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of false prophecies regarding now-Staff Sergeant Schalit's release warrants closer examination.
There are a number of possible, non-exclusive reasons for the recurring, though unofficial, announcement of Schalit's impending freedom, the most obvious and straightforward of which is that sincere and painstaking efforts to secure his release made genuine progress, and parties to the negotiations expressed their confidence to reporters eager to share potentially good news about an emotionally charged subject.
Other explanations are no less plausible, however. Among them:
1) a manifestation of Israel's chronic problem of officials leaking sensitive information;
2) the use of leaked information or disinformation by either party in an effort to increase negotiating pressure through heightened public expectations;
3) accurate or inaccurate leaks by those unhappy with the terms of an agreement in the offing, and
4) perhaps overenthusiastic efforts by local and foreign journalists to generate headlines.
The implications of these ultimately unfounded waves of optimism go beyond the emotional hardship they create for the Schalit family and for the families of prisoners. Whether intentionally or not, the promising headlines can influence the negotiations themselves, as they have the potential to increase public expectations and pressure.
This is the case for both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, though recent surveys indicate an Israeli majority supports even a costly prisoner release, while it is obviously more difficult to know the extent to which Hamas is sensitive to the demands of the Palestinian public in general and of prisoners' families in particular.
One of the most frequently raised objections to paying a high price in exchange for Schalit is that doing so could incentivize future kidnappings. Leaks regarding, and the subsequent sensational coverage of, illusory "deals" carry the same dangerous potential.
Efforts to keep the details of negotiations secret are also problematic. As others have pointed out, doing so threatens to stifle public debate on the issue (though whether this should be a matter of public debate or a closed-door security issue is itself debatable). In practical terms, however, Israel (ostensibly) can control only its own information releases. Israeli efforts to keep the particulars secret could be undermined quickly and easily by Palestinian, Egyptian or other sources.
Ultimately, this problem might prove to be somewhat self-correcting. After so many false alarms, one would hope that the media and the public would treat future predictions and announcements with greater skepticism and less emotional investment. Then, perhaps, future rounds of negotiations could be conducted without the heat of so many spotlights, which might be exactly what is required to strike a deal.
The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. Reprinted with permission.