Another Tack: The Miriam Groff follow-up

Distraught parents can become potent weapons in the abductors' psychological warfare arsenal.

Back in 1985 Geula Cohen hotly opposed the looming mega-release of convicted terrorists - 1,150 of them, including some of the worst mass-murderers in Israel's prisons (like Kozo Okamoto, perpetrator of 1972's infamous airport massacre). In return, Israel was to get three soldiers abducted and held captive by terror linchpin Ahmed Jibril. A reporter provocatively inquired of Cohen if her position would remain as unrelenting were her own son held hostage by fanatic villains. She didn't flinch. "Of course it wouldn't," she frankly admitted. "As a mother, no price would be too high for my child's life. I would shout so, but in the same breath I'd appeal to the government not to listen to a single word I utter." Why? Because the priorities of a hostage's parents are obviously - and understandably - warped by extreme anguish. Their world shrinks till it encompasses only their overpowering personal tragedy. They naturally focus on the fate and face of one beloved missing individual. They aren't burdened with agonizing, complex calculations of the long-term collective good. But national leaders who avoid doing the most comprehensive arithmetic are by definition recklessly remiss. Up until 1985 Israelis expected their successive governments to courageously choose between future detriment and immediate sacrifice. It was never a painless call to make - not when dozens of children were held to ransom in Ma'alot's schoolhouse, not when entire families were cornered in their own homes, not when guests were trapped in Tel Aviv's Savoy Hotel, not when Sabena passengers were hijacked or other air-travelers taken to Entebbe, not when Olympic athletes were attacked in Munich or when a busload of holiday-makers was commandeered on the Coastal Highway. None of the above outrages had a fully happy, Hollywood-worthy ending. Many indeed culminated in outright bloodbaths. Yet Israeli leaders and the general public were unswerving in their resolve to resist tempting, seemingly easy solutions. At the time, even the international community - which already then lost no opportunity to demonize Israel - grudgingly admired Israeli pluck. WE WERE quite unique in an otherwise backbone-deficient world until Yitzhak Rabin encountered Miriam Groff of Holon. She was mother to Private Yoskeh, snatched in September 1982 while marking time in Lebanon, waiting to do a year's service for Hashomer Hatza'ir. Miriam made then-defense minister Rabin's life a misery. She hounded him, organized demonstrations, happenings, performances, anything. Finally the national unity government under Shimon Peres contracted the ignominious transaction that liberated Yoskeh in May 1985, but flung open the floodgates to a deluge that still engulfs us. Groff legitimized failure of nerve and increased enemy leverage by helping it to emotionally manipulate anyway soft-hearted Jews, who - unlike Arabs - traditionally value saving lives above all else. In their book Intifada, Ehud Ya'ari and the recently departed, much respected Ze'ev Schiff determined that "over a third of all those set loose in the Jibril deal renewed terrorist activity within a year. The rest joined after the eruption of the intifada's first wave of hostilities… in time Jibril crowed, justly, that his deal sowed the intifada's seeds." The upheaval Yoskeh's mom triggered caused Israelis to shun the territories. Minds and hearts were conditioned for Oslo, which subsequently brought us exploding buses, the unilateral flight from Lebanon, the second intifada, the Second Lebanon War, nearly 2,000 dead Israelis and thousands maimed, bereaved, orphaned and finally also uprooted in Oslo's disastrously derivative disengagement. Suffice it to note that notorious Hamas progenitor Ahmed Yassin's first release came under the Jibril deal. Yassin had "no blood on his hands" then, but before his 1989 rearrest he founded Hamas, commissioned the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers (who unlike Yoskeh were expendable) and ordered the execution of "collaborators." Another unforgettable Jibril alumnus is Jihad al-Amarin, who post-release founded the (Fatah-affiliated) Aksa Martyrs Brigades' Gaza branch and killed six soldiers - also apparently less vital national assets than Yoskeh. Other gratuitous releases followed the Jibril deal, mostly (apart from 2004's dubious Elhanan Tannenbaum swap) to cement Osloite folly with inexplicable and inexcusable "goodwill gestures." All too many Israelis failed to survive such confidence-building measures. MIRIAM SECURED Yoskeh's freedom at a cost too awful to tally. Though distasteful, the undeniable truth is that distraught parents can become potent weapons in the abductors' psychological warfare arsenal. Groff sometimes came across as grotesquely shrill, yet the dovish media avidly abetted her, just as it today cheers Miki Goldwasser (mother of Ehud, held by Hizbullah with Eldad Regev) and Noam Schalit (father to Gilad, captive in Gaza). Both appear more decorous than Groff, perhaps owing to diminished societal taboos today versus 22 years ago. Yet by playing into Hamas and Hizbullah hands, they too could potentially unleash a calamity of Jibril-fiasco proportions. Moreover, they won't necessarily speed their sons' redemption. By Mideastern haggling codes, excessive eagerness only ups the ante and emboldens savvy traders to adopt less compromising bargaining tactics. If these parents keep pressuring their own government, putting the onus on Israel instead of on the callous captors, weakening Israel's resistance to extortion and boosting the profitability of kidnapping, then any of us could fall victim to their Miriam Groff follow-up act. They need to recall that Ilan Sa'adon and Avi Sasportas (slain on Ahmed Yassin's instructions) also had devoted parents. They mustn't forget Matan Biderman, Asher Zaguri, Ron Lavi or Moshe Peled, whose blood stained Amarin's hands. They too had adoring mothers and fathers. They too served their nation in uniform. This is the dilemma Geula Cohen cautioned against. Parents may consider only their own offspring. Elected governments, sworn to serve us all, must look after all the children of Israel.