Civil Fights: What the truce has done for Gilad Schalit

Hamas already received everything it most needed from Israel, so it can afford to delay Schalit deal.

Gilad Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Israel concluded a truce with Hamas in June, Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared that it was primarily "for Gilad Schalit's sake." The truce, he said, would facilitate negotiations with Hamas for the kidnapped soldier's return. Last week, Barak continued reciting that mantra even as it collapsed around his ears. According to media reports, Hamas has tripled its price for Schalit since the truce began. The London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted a Hamas spokesman last weekend as saying his organization would demand "more than 1,000" prisoners in exchange for Schalit, up from 450 previously. Last Friday's Haaretz offered a more specific figure: It reported that when Barak visited Egypt earlier that week, Egyptian mediators told him that Hamas is now demanding 1,500 prisoners for Schalit. Why have Hamas's demands suddenly ballooned? According to both Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin and the government's point man for the negotiations, Ofer Dekel, the truce itself is the main culprit. With a cease-fire in place, they argued at a meeting with senior cabinet ministers last Wednesday, Hamas is no longer under any pressure to conclude an agreement: The IDF no longer threatens its personnel, and Israel has eased its economic blockade of Gaza, thereby alleviating a major source of discontent with Hamas among ordinary Gazans. In short, Hamas has already received everything it most needed from Israel, so it can afford to delay the Schalit deal to extort a higher price. That, of course, was eminently predictable. The rationale for the truce, essentially, was that if we were nice to Hamas, Hamas would be nice to us - a highly unlikely response from an organization committed to our destruction, which therefore always has an interest in tightening the screws if it can. Indeed, experience shows that Hamas has never made concessions voluntarily; it has done so only in response to intense pressure. For instance, Masab Yousef, whose father Hassan is considered Hamas's leader in the West Bank, declared in a published interview last month that the assassinations of Hamas leaders during the intifada are what ultimately caused it to curtail its attacks. Despite this, no cabinet minister voted against the truce initially. And even the new and conclusive evidence of its negative impact on the Schalit talks - coupled with the fact that the new demands explicitly violate the truce, under which Hamas pledged to expedite the negotiations - has not changed any minds. At last Wednesday's meeting, Dekel and Diskin begged for renewed pressure on Hamas: Dekel, for instance, suggested either halting fuel supplies to Gaza or closing the border crossings. But not only did the ministers refuse, they insisted that what was needed was more flexibility. As Barak put it: "If we demonstrate more willingness [to make concessions], perhaps Hamas will demonstrate more willingness." Defense officials also fingered a secondary culprit: July's deal with Hizbullah, in which the government exchanged child-killer Samir Kuntar and nine other prisoners (in two stages) for two slain soldiers. When one of the most vicious terrorists in our custody was traded for two dead bodies, they explained, that convinced Hamas it could obtain hundreds of such killers for a living soldier. This, too, was predictable. Yet only three ministers opposed the Hizbullah deal. There is, admittedly, a third factor that is partly beyond the government's control: the public and media campaign to free Schalit regardless of the price, which has largely drowned out opposing views. As Haaretz's Sunday editorial (falsely) put it, virtually no issue "elicits such a broad consensus as the demand for Schalit's release at almost any price." Hamas thus believes that whatever price it sets, Israel's media and public will force the government to pay. Yet even here, the government is hardly helpless. It could be using its powerful bully pulpit to mobilize those who already realize the dangers of Hamas's demands and to explain these dangers to the rest. Many people do understand that trading hundreds of terrorists for Schalit would result in dozens or even hundreds of Israeli deaths. This is not mere speculation, but a certainty. In every previous prisoner release, according to defense establishment estimates, roughly 50 percent of the freed prisoners have resumed terrorist activity, with deadly consequences. Consider, for example, the 400 prisoners traded for drug dealer Elhanan Tannenbaum on January 29, 2004. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, citing Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi, says that between then and April 17, 2007, those freed terrorists killed 35 Israelis. If the Schalit deal were framed in that stark fashion - his freedom on Hamas's (original) terms would cost 35 lives - most people would reject it. Yet that is the only correct way to frame it. To do otherwise is to blur its actual cost, and thereby prevent people from making an informed decision. Yet no minister has even tried to make this case. Instead, they proclaim to a man that we must accept Hamas's demands and release dozens of killers. And since previously approved criteria forbid doing so, the cabinet even established a special ministerial committee to revise these criteria. The Kadima-led government has been remarkably consistent in making bad decisions the first time around. Even more remarkable, however, is its failure to learn from its mistakes - and this includes all four of the candidates to succeed Ehud Olmert as premier. After air power failed to stop Hizbullah's rocket attacks from Lebanon, our ministers relied on air power again to stop Hamas's rocket attacks from Gaza (with equal lack of success). As the European-led force in Lebanon openly sided with Hizbullah against Israel, our ministers continued floating the idea of stationing international troops in the West Bank and/or Gaza. And now that the truce has made Hamas less rather than more flexible over Gilad Schalit, our ministers still refuse to reverse course and resume exerting pressure on Hamas. Instead, they assert that further "gestures" to Hamas are needed. True, everybody makes mistakes. But people who keep repeating the same mistakes over and over have no business running a country.