Analysis: The big picture or the family photograph?

Since the conclusion last week of the Goldwasser-Regev-Kuntar deal, several leading commentators have argued that the Israeli families' campaigns to free their sons hampered the deal, setting a higher price for the Israeli side. They accuse the media of playing up the personal tragedy that has befallen the families over the strategic interests of the country. These commentators urge the media, and the family and friends of captured soldier Gilad Schalit, to learn the lessons of the Hizbullah swap, and to lower their profile. They say that the national-strategic interests of dealing with the Hamas terrorist entity in Gaza and its long-term effects on the region far outweigh the personal-private interests of a family wanting to get their son back. Don't confuse the big picture with the family photograph, they say. This view frames Gilad Schalit as an IDF soldier, captured in battle, whose return should be negotiated within the larger strategic picture of the Israel-Hamas-PA matrix. He is not my brother, my son, my army buddy or the boy next door, they say. To the Schalit family, their friends and Gilad's army buddies, Gilad is first and foremost a son, a brother, a friend, whose negotiated release should take priority over the long-term plan of how to deal with Hamas. The Hamas problem is not going away so quickly, there is time to work out the bigger picture. They are against the framing of this issue as purely the personal versus the national. They see Gilad as part of the national, a part that can be dealt with easier and more quickly than the bigger picture. The Gilad camp wants the Israeli government, which wants to make a deal, to make up its mind quicker. According to the latest reports, a framework for a prisoner exchange has already been set up - with Israel agreeing to release 450 prisoners in the first stage, and Hamas releasing Gilad Schalit to the Egyptians, after which Israel releases 550 prisoners to PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a gesture of goodwill at a later stage. What is holding the deal up now is the identity of some of the terrorists on the Hamas wish-list. And herein is the main goal of the free-Gilad campaign. Hamas wants the release of some heavy-duty, blood-on-their-hands terrorists, like the men who masterminded the Park Hotel massacre, and dozens of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis. The Gilad campaign wants to counter the pressure several groups are placing on the government not to release master-terrorists, groups such as terror-victims associations, families of those killed in terror attacks, and many right-wing politicians. The argument goes something like this: Terror victims' families have paid a tremendous price, their loved ones are dead. Gilad is alive; he will most likely be kept alive as long as Hamas sees him as an asset, a buffer against a too-harsh IDF raid into Gaza and as a prisoner-exchange bargaining chip. Releasing master-terrorists will strengthen Hamas and demoralize Israelis. Some of those released may even return to "active duty". The free-Gilad camp knows that these are significant voices that influence public opinion. But they feel time is running out. The Schalit family believes it has shown restraint over the past two years. Their patience has run out. They speak more often now of Ron Arad, and several of Arad's friends have joined the Gilad campaign. So what if these terrorists return to carry out terror attacks, they argue. It's not as if Hamas has a shortage of willing recruits. Every day about thirty of them volunteer to be martyrs. Some Palestinians even carry out terror attacks without joining Hamas. All they do these days is climb into a tractor and drive down a major street. Terror has been privatized. So if the terrorists Israel releases in exchange for Gilad come back to fight is it really only because Hamas wants to "stick it to us," especially cognizant of the reaction that such a "repeat attack" would create in our media. The national-strategic camp argues: What if the released terrorists disseminate their terror know-how back down through the Hamas ranks? After all, we are talking about masterminds - people who designed bomb belts, triggers, and knew how to get terrorists through Israeli security. The free-Gilad camp counters that some of these terrorists have been in prison for several years, so everything they know has already been absorbed into the terror database, and they're not going to teach the new Hamas trainee anything he doesn't already know. Our worry is not the terrorists we release, but the ones that are not on our radars, they argue. Besides, Hamas terror is focused now on shooting rockets at Israeli towns around Gaza, they don't need explosive belts experts, they need engineers who can design better, longer and more durable rockets, and they need smugglers. The big-picture camp argues that releasing hundreds of hardened terrorists for the return of one soldier damages Israeli deterrence. The free-Gilad camp argues that since these terrorists will most likely be released at some stage along the Israel-Palestinian track; why not release them now to get Gilad back? Furthermore, Israeli deterrence is also reliant on the faith of parents who send their sons to the army, and on soldiers who believe their government will do everything to free them if they are captured. That faith is already eroding, and if Gilad Schalit turns into Ron Arad, that will be bad for Israeli deterrence in the long term. Neither camp is under the illusion that the return of Gilad will end the rocket fire from Gaza. Hamas has its own big-picture reasons for firing rockets at Israel, which won't change when it no longer holds Gilad captive. Hamas is under its own prisoner-exchange pressure too, with dozens of families of prisoners held in Israeli jails sitting outside Hamas offices in Gaza holding pictures of their sons and brothers. But Hamas may be in a stronger position to deal with public pressure than the Israeli government is, as Hamas controls Gaza's media. The dilemma now facing the government is a tough one: to separate or merge the Schalit family photograph from the larger picture of what to do with Hamas-controlled Gaza? In light of last week's deal with Hizbullah, the Israeli media will have to decide which of the two pictures it puts on the front pages. That decision may ultimately decide the way the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange plays out. For more of Amir Mizroch's articles, see his personal blog Forecast Highs