Analysis: Pulling the public opinion rug out from under Hamas

Hamas banked on gov't caving in to public pressure during Schalit talks.

olmert 63 (photo credit: )
olmert 63
(photo credit: )
Up until now, Hamas has adroitly enlisted Israeli public opinion in getting the best possible deal for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. On Tuesday, the government decided to fight back. By deciding for the first time to release the names of some of the terrorists Hamas has demanded in return for Schalit, the government - which for so long has adamantly refused to release any of these details - decided to enter the public opinion ring. While many Israelis may have difficulty understanding why the government would not release 450 generic "prisoners" for Schalit, when they hear the names of a few of those prisoners - some of whom make Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, who was exchanged for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, look like a choir boy in comparison - the debate takes on a bit of a different tenor. The names Bahij Badar, Abdullah Barghouti, Ibrahim Hamed and Abbas a-Sayid may not say a lot to a lot of people. However, the Israeli public remembers all too well, and with great pain, the attacks for which they were responsible: the worst attacks of the second intifada, from the bombing at the Sbarro pizza parlor in Jerusalem, to the Seder night massacre in Netanya, to the atrocity at the Hebrew University cafeteria. Seeing these names on the list Hamas demanded, the government reasoned, would put the whole debate over Schalit in a somewhat different perspective. And with the release of the names of prisoners Israel would not release, the government also publicized some of those it would be willing to free, including those with "blood on their hands" - those responsible for killing Israelis. The release of that list was also a play for public opinion, since it showed the length the government was willing to go to win the freedom of Schalit. Three of the four professionals who spoke at Tuesday's cabinet meeting - the prime minister's point man on the prisoner issue, Ofer Dekel; Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin; and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin - all said that Hamas had reneged on previous agreements and toughened its position because of the belief that Israeli public opinion would eventually force the government's hand. The feeling of the security professionals was that Hamas believed that no government could stand up to the protests and full-court media press and pleas by the Schalit family. Hamas banked on the government caving in to the public pressure. On Tuesday, however, the government tried to turn the tables on Hamas. Release the names, the rationale seemed to be, and the public pressure would be lessened - or, at the very least there would be more understanding as to why the government felt unable to give in to Hamas's demands. It is difficult to say how close the sides were to a deal in Cairo on Sunday and Monday, because - as Dekel and Diskin told the cabinet - when they got there, Hamas had already backtracked. According to government sources, Israel had agreed to release 450 prisoners, and had also agreed to release some 320 of the prisoners from a list Hamas had submitted. The disagreement was about the other 130, and Hamas was unwilling to submit different names. Hamas apparently thought time was on its side, and with just a little more public pressure the government would cave in. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the nation Tuesday night in his televised statement that Israel was neither beaten nor defeated, and there were red lines that could not be crossed - even in the face of a public opinion blitz. Public opinion, the government also somewhat belatedly seemed to realize, does not have to be a one-way street. It seems that through its decision Sunday to set up a committee to consider toughening the conditions for the Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, it was trying to impact Palestinian public opinion. Among the suggestions the committee will reportedly deal with is the possibility of revoking visitation rights for the Palestinian prisoners, taking away phone privileges, newspaper and television access, and perhaps depriving them of electricity at night - moves that would approximate in some small way the conditions Schalit is believed to be facing. If relatives cannot visit, or the prisoners can't call home, then perhaps there will be public pressure on Hamas to show some flexibility. It's a long shot, but the message from the government Tuesday was that since Israel was not willing to give in to Hamas's demands, the search for that one button that would move the organization on the Schalit issue would continue.