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(photo credit: AP [file])
A couple of days ago a student at George Washington University, in Washington, DC stood up, looked straight into the eyes of the relatives of the captive soldiers and said: "Everyone knows that the Israeli government is corrupt. How does that affect the way it relates to the issue of the captive soldiers?"
Thus, within a second, Israel's main issues were tied in together. On one hand, incessant reports of the personal failures of top-level figures in Israel's political and defense establishment; on the other, the long journey of the captive soldier's' families to bring their sons home.
A week ago I accompanied those soldiers' families to Washington and New York. The visit was under the auspices of UJC Federations of North America which, in conjunction with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, mobilized to put this issue on the international agenda.
The Lebanon war is behind us and in Israel we are dealing with different and diverse matters, while the captive soldiers have been left behind.
The Goldwasser and Regev families (the Schalit family stayed at home) have taken it upon themselves to lead the campaign in the US and elsewhere. These are private individuals acting on their own, taking advantage of any opportunity offered. They are helped by Jewish organizations (such as the UJC, the Friends of the Technion, the Jewish community of France) or formal Israeli institutions, such as the Foreign Ministry. But these are sporadic activities, important in and of themselves but not focused and certainly not part of any overall strategy to promote this issue.
THE FAMILIES are already well-versed in presenting their personal story. They have told it over and over again, and it is, indeed, heart-wrenching. They have told it at meetings with the UN secretary-general, with the speaker of the House of Representatives, with senators and members of Congress, at a rally on Capitol Hill and in other public forums.
A surprising exception, incidentally, is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has not yet found time to meet with the families, despite her frequent visits to Israel. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik took advantage of her meeting with the secretary to ask her to find the time to meet with the families.
The issue of the captive soldiers requires a two-pronged effort.
First, points of contact need to be found with Hizbullah (in Lebanon) and the Islamic Jihad (in Gaza) to begin negotiating the captives' release. This effort is being led by former deputy Shin Bet head Ofer Dekel, who was appointed by the prime minister, and it is proceeding secretly and in silence, the only way it might succeed. I have no doubt that Dekel, together with the Israeli intelligence community, is making every effort to secure the soldiers' release.
The other area of activity is the public arena. Its goal is to put international pressure on the organizations holding the captives.
The first stage is to get them to give out information on the condition of the soldiers, and afterwards to enter into negotiations. We are talking about terrorist or quasi-political organizations, over which states have limited influence. International organizations or other non-state international factors have a greater chance of getting results.
Israel has experience with negotiations of this kind. This is not the first time terrorists have taken captives and used them as leverage for political or territorial gains and, of course, to exchange for terrorists held in Israeli prisons.
DESPITE THE tendency to say no, in the past Israel has demonstrated flexibility at the critical moment and shown that it is attentive to the voices from home that call for compromise.
It must also be stressed that although Israel, the US and other countries do not talk with Hizbullah or the Islamic Jihad, which have been declared terrorist organizations, when it comes to humanitarian issues such as securing the release of captive soldiers, it is clear that it is permissible, and in fact necessary to talk with any factor that can help promote this objective.
More than seven months have passed since the Lebanon war. It is time for Israel to develop a strategy that will ultimately bring about the soldiers' release. The government must invest both in negotiations and in funding.
However, the effort must be led not by governmental but by civil factors, which will provide the appropriate Israeli and international public umbrella. There are enough people in Israel and around the world who would be ready and willing to join the effort. It is clear that the families cannot and should not be left to do it on their own.
Israel does not excel at long-range planning. We are usually too busy "putting out fires." But the issue at hand most certainly requires long-range thinking, accurate planning and an ongoing effort.
We still have strong memories of the Ron Arad trauma. We had initial contact with his captors, but then the trail disappeared.
We must not let time play a similar role here. We must act quickly.
The writer is a senior vice-president of United Jewish Communities and director-general of its Israel office.
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