Who brought Gilad Schalit home?

The media is part of the change in the rules of the game of public decision-making.

Noam Schalit speaks to reporters 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Noam Schalit speaks to reporters 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
When the Israeli disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip was implemented in the summer of 2005, the leaders of state vowed – and the most vocal among them was then deputy prime minister Shimon Peres – that if Hamas dared to mount attacks on Israeli citizens from the areas that had been evacuated, the IDF would respond with force the likes of which had never been seen. Hamas, they swore, would be quickly convinced to never attack again.
Even if Peres actually believed what he was saying, reality proved him so wrong that, in due time, he apologized for his support for the unilateral manner in which Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip.
Politicians are very adept at convincing themselves how right they are, making it easier for them to enlist public support for their decisions. True, sometimes leaders of state deliberately and cynically mislead the public; but other times, they are so swept away by their own rhetoric that it is difficult to know to what extent they actually believe in what they are saying and to what extent they are dissembling.
Whatever their intentions, this rhetoric becomes a central element of the way in which governments conduct their business.
This has always been true; it is even more valid now in our age in which words, statements, and images are no less valid than the governments’ actual actions.
In the midst of the excitement surrounding the return of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit on October 18, politicians followed the example set by Peres six years ago, making it clear that from now on, if and when they are forced to conduct negotiations for the return of an Israeli soldier or civilian captive, things will be handled in a completely different manner.
Leaders claimed that the rules have been changed, reformulated by a committee headed by former chief justice Meir Shamgar. Definitive new parameters for negotiations for the return of prisoners have been set. The central recommendation of this committee, according to leaks to the press, is to follow the principle of “an eye for an eye.” That is, one Israeli soldier will be redeemed for only one Palestinian, not for a thousand or more, as per the deal for the release of Gilad Schalit. And to emphasize how serious they are, government sources claimed that these parameters will soon be ensconced in law.
It’s bad enough that the political leaders of today, like the political leaders of yesterday and yesteryear (in Israel, they’re the same people) convince themselves or flagrantly pretend that they actually have the power to fundamentally change the rules of the game that have governed all previous negotiations to release Israeli prisoners. It’s bad enough that senior public officials genuinely believe, or calmly count on the public’s poor memory, that declarations and legislation will enable them to resist the pleas of the parents of the next captured soldier and to stand up to the massive media campaign that will support those parents’ demand to free their son at any price.
But why are senior Israeli journalists helping to perpetuate this illusion? Following Schalit’s release, newspapers published op-eds by well-known publicists vowing along the lines of “never again.” Some noticed the reversal of roles that had taken over Israeli society – citizens now defend soldiers – and called on the government to take the steps necessary to ensure that from now on bargaining with enemy organizations will be bound by a set of rules designed to enhance the government’s ability to stand up to public pressure calling for the return of prisoners at any cost.
These columnists are part of the assumption – some tried to present it as a fact – that it is actually possible to create new mechanisms to enable leaders to conduct tough negotiations with terrorist organizations or enemy states holding Israeli soldiers or civilians.
This is an illusion.
The agreement that brought about Schalit’s release merely reiterated the precedents set even before the Jabril deal in 1985, which have subsequently been entrenched in Israeli behavior by a series of agreements with terrorist organizations. throughout the generations, prime ministers have been unable to face up to the pleas of the families, especially since these pleas have always been supported by the media.
Now that the Internet makes it possible to enlist mass support for individual protests in a way never before possible, it is even more difficult for any government to make this call. Today an individual can, with relative ease, touch many hearts. thus, decision-making has been transferred from the elected state institutions to the public arena.
It was the real-time use of the Web, mediated by traditional media, that determined the way the public views the 2006 second Lebanon War and the 2008/9 Operation Cast lead – and these determinations have been more powerful than the results on the actual battlefield.
Early this year, Yoav Galant was the preferred candidate of the prime minister and minister of defense for chief of the IDF general staff, but in the end he was not appointed because of his negative image in the public. the social protests this summer changed reality more than dozens of formal decisions taken by the Knesset and the government.
And Gilad Schalit came home because his family was able to bring their pain to the streets and to the public square and to imprint the image of their vulnerable son in every home.
It is unlikely that these basic conditions – a lone soldier languishing in captivity with a family who knows how to use the power of the media fighting for him on the home front can determine the final outcome – will change as a result of determined governmental decisions or Knesset legislation.
Journalists are supporting the illusion that this not the case, yet journalists are also being dragged into the illusion. It is as if these senior journalists are not aware of the role the press plays in the public decision-making process in the second decade of the 21st century, or of the power of the Web, or of the destabilization of representative democracy, or of the extent to which leaders’ behavior is almost completely exposed. Nor do they seem to be aware that the public is increasingly demanding a direct influence on the manner in which affairs of state are conducted.
It is very ironic that not only is the media part of the flow of governmental activity, but also identifies with and becomes part of its target audience. and so, the media demands the right to determine who will be the next chief of staff and what changes will be made to the financial structures of the state. And at the same time it is part of the tent protests and supported the Schalit family.
Under such conditions, what chance does the formal leadership have to conduct tough negotiations with terrorist organizations in the future?
The writer is editor-in-chief of ‘The Seventh Eye,’ the Israeli media watch website, sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute and the College of Management, www.the7eye.org.il.