Putting one family above the nation

The fact that some MKs who opposed the Schalit deal nevertheless kept silent at the family’s request was a betrayal of their duty as the public’s elected representatives.

Schalit Netanyahu Barak Gantz 311 (photo credit: Ariel Harmony / Defense Ministry)
Schalit Netanyahu Barak Gantz 311
(photo credit: Ariel Harmony / Defense Ministry)
One of the most disturbing revelations of the past two weeks is that some Knesset members who opposed the ransom deal for Gilad Schalit nevertheless acceded to his family’s request to keep silent until the deal was concluded.
On October 21, for instance, former MK Tzachi Hanegbi, of Kadima, wrote the following in these pages:
A few years ago, I got a call from Zvi Schalit, Gilad’s grandfather. He was upset by a radio interview I had given that morning. At the time, I was chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and I detailed the “red lines” of the security and political establishment over a prisoner exchange with Hamas.
Zvi Schalit sought to persuade me that the state should not draft tougher principles on negotiating with terrorists until his grandson was safely returned to his family.
I couldn’t agree, but my heart went out to the grandfather’s plea. At his request, I pledged not to worsen the family’s pain by making my position public. And I kept my word.
Two days later, Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni announced that she, too, opposed the Schalit deal, believing that it undermined Israel’s deterrence and strengthened Hamas, but kept silent until it was concluded at the request of Gilad’s father, Noam.
Livni and Hanegbi are almost certainly not alone; many politicians, journalists and other public figures likely made the same choice for the same reason. And I can understand their motives, because I, too, received that heartrending phone call from Zvi Schalit, after publishing a column in this paper in 2009 opposing the deal as it stood then. It’s very hard to say “no” to a thoroughly decent man going through hell and begging you not to add to his agony. And while I couldn’t retract what I’d already published, I ended the conversation thinking that had he called before I wrote the article, I might well have decided there were enough other things to write about; I didn’t need to pour salt in the Schalit family’s wounds. Nevertheless, Hanegbi and Livni were wrong to let their compassion overrule their judgment. Livni herself gave the best argument for why.
“The people of Israel forced the government to free Gilad Schalit,” she charged, correctly, when she finally broke her silence. But did she really expect the people to do otherwise when they were deluged, day after day, with arguments in favor of the deal, while those who opposed it largely kept silent out of compassion for the Schalits? You can’t win a battle of ideas by abandoning the field.
And while private individuals have the right to eschew the fray, MKs do not, because they have a fiduciary duty to the public: They are elected to serve the people, and they owe those they serve their best judgment. By placing the good of one family over what they themselves deemed to be the national interest, Livni and Hanegbi betrayed the people who elected them.
This dereliction of duty was compounded by the fact that they were uniquely well-poised to influence the public debate, since their positions gave them access to information the general public lacked. Hanegbi chaired the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for four and a half years of Schalit’s captivity; Livni was foreign minister during the first three years and leader of the opposition thereafter. All three positions grant their occupants access to information that isn’t in the public domain.
No official statistics, for instance, have ever been published on what percentage of freed terrorists returned to terror; the estimates I saw in the press during the years of Schalit’s captivity ranged from 13 to 80 percent – a variance so enormous the public couldn’t possibly assess the magnitude of the danger the deal posed. By virtue of their positions, Hanegbi and Livni could have demanded that the security services provide real data and then publicized it, thereby facilitating such an assessment. Instead, they chose to keep silent.
Six weeks ago, I wrote a column criticizing MKs who seem to think their job begins and ends with making public statements, rather than trying to turn their ideas into legislation. An MK who is nothing more than a pundit is useless; punditry can be done just as well from outside the Knesset.
But refraining entirely from public statements is no less problematic because, in a democracy, public opinion influences governmental decisions. Hence elected representatives have an obligation to try to shape public opinion on the burning issues of the day. That some MKs (and again, I doubt Livni and Hanegbi were alone) instead sat out the public debate on a deal they considered dangerous to the country is thus deeply troubling.
Speaking against the Schalit deal would certainly have caused the Schalits great pain. But if causing pain is a reason for silence, no public debate could ever be held. Did the Gazan settlers slated to be thrown out of their homes not feel pain when MKs lobbied for the disengagement? Did the victims of post-Oslo terror not feel pain when MKs praised Mahmoud Abbas as a “peace partner” even as Abbas lauded their loved ones’ murderers as heroes? Did Livni and Hanegbi ever seriously consider not pursuing these policies out of consideration for one particular family’s pain?
Their silence over Schalit is yet more evidence that far too many MKs seem not to understand the most basic responsibilities of their office. And then they wonder why only one-third of Israelis retain any trust in what ought to be democracy’s flagship institution.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.