My Word: Blame and shame

Final push for Schalit's release before end of Olmert's government sent out multi-messages of negativity.

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
At a No. 18 bus stop earlier this month I overheard an only-in-Jerusalem conversation. Two elderly men were discussing the best way to get to a certain address. "Get off at the stop where there was the pitzutz," one advised the other. The bus stop was plastered with announcements of annual memorials of the victims of bus bombings carried out on two consecutive weeks in 1996. I couldn't help myself. "Where wasn't there an explosion?" I asked, thinking of at least six sites on the route where there are plaques commemorating terror attacks. The men looked at me and laughed. "You're too young to remember," said the senior one. "I'm not talking about the piguim [suicide attacks], I'm talking about the bombing from the old days." I should just have accepted the compliment. Instead I found myself in a detailed discussion of the history of terror attacks in Jerusalem. This is about as psychologically sound as reading a history of airplane crashes just before you board a Jumbo, but it passed the time until the No. 18 arrived. Living in Jerusalem is a special experience. Being given directions according to the locations of various terror attacks, however, is one of the experiences we could all happily live without. It was a sentiment heightened when, as Post political reporter Herb Keinon noted, the government decided to pull the public opinion rug out from under Hamas and release the names of the terrorists it wanted freed in return for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. The names of the terrorists didn't mean that much. But the attacks they were responsible for did. I could even put faces to some of the victims - many of them the faces of forever-young dead. On the list was the terrorist responsible for the two 1996 Jerusalem bus attacks in which 44 people died. Also listed were the masterminds of the attacks in which 100 people lost their lives, including the Sbarro restaurant bombing and the attacks on Moment cafe and the Hebrew University cafeteria. There was the terrorist behind the attacks that killed 82 people, among them 11 victims in Jerusalem's Zion Square in 2001. And the name behind, among other outrages, the 1997 suicide bombing in Mahaneh Yehuda market which killed 18 and the 1997 Ben-Yehuda Street bombing that killed eight. I looked over the list and realized that by nearly every attack I could write: been there, done that. And that is just a partial list for the capital. Others presumably had a similar reaction as they read of the possibly soon-to-be-released terrorists behind bombings in, among other places, Netanya, Tel Aviv and Hadera. IT WAS PART of the typical Israeli roller-coaster style, in which the Hebrew press spent half of the week pushing Schalit's cause for all it was worth - and it was worth a lot as tabloid tearjerkers inevitably are - and the second half of the week examining whether the media coverage itself was to blame for the one indisputable fact in this tragic saga: Schalit is still not back home. Blame for his continued incarceration was thrown in all directions. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blamed Hamas; Hamas blamed Israel. Some blamed politicians, politicians blamed the media, the media blamed themselves. The Left blamed the Right, which focused on the possible future loss of life if all the terrorists that Hamas was demanding were released. The Right accused the Left of being willing to trade anything for the release of one soldier: What would be next? Would Hamas demand all the Negev and Hizbullah the Golan Heights? "I don't know what we should do about Schalit," said one friend, "but I think maybe we should give soldiers cyanide capsules in the future so that we don't get into this situation." She was only half joking. After all, the country was clearly being held hostage along with Schalit, and it isn't clear how we can safely get out of it. One of the most disturbing aspects of the tragic affair is the way that the Israeli public wasn't sure whom to believe: Hamas or Olmert. Also jarring is the feeling that the media heightened its coverage not just for the ratings. The perception is that if Schalit is not returned before the end of Olmert's term, he won't make it home at all. Binyamin Netanyahu, according to this line of thought, will not be able to secure Schalit's release. "We don't want Schalit to turn into a second Ron Arad," explained one supporter after another, referring to the IAF navigator who went missing in Lebanon in 1986. Actually, Arad is not the first. There are still three soldiers missing from the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in 1982. And when you consider that few Israelis have heard of them and even fewer can name them - Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman - you can't blame the Schalit family for doing everything possible to keep Gilad's fate in the media's limelight. THINGS WERE DIFFERENT in "the old days." It was taken for granted that the state would do everything to get POWs back. And in those days, politicians held photo-op visits to the families after the release of the soldiers, not before. I remember Yitzhak Rabin being photographed greeting a POW I knew as he returned from Syria, raising some controversy in the staunch Likudnik family and community in which he lived. Even then there were charges that the release - or at least the media coverage - was exploited for electoral purposes. Watching Defense Minister Ehud Barak visiting the Schalits' protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Residence one has to wonder just what government he thinks he's been sitting in. Israeli politicians feel the permanent need to campaign because elections are never that far away. And this does not bode well for the decision-making process. "We have red lines and we won't cross them," said Olmert, struggling to make some sense out of the last three years in office in which so many lines went red with embarrassment. The final push itself is damaging - giving out multi-messages of negativity: Olmert struggling to finish his term with some significant achievement; the hint that Netanyahu will not negotiate - as feared by those who stress the "process" above the peace. Hamas saw not only the media festival centered around the Schalits' protest tent but also an outgoing prime minister who, despite his best intentions, barely deserves the description of "leader" and an incoming premier struggling to put together a coalition while eyeing threats across the border. It is easy to say what is best for Schalit and much harder to determine what is best for the country. But one thing is certain: turning the fate of a prisoner of war into a political issue is not good for anyone this side of Gaza.