Reality Check: Schalit’s returning to a whole new world

Sign of great leader is ability to make grave decisions, even at the cost of spurning long-held, cherished beliefs.

Schalit family fence 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Schalit family fence 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the Hebrew papers had the great idea this weekend of encouraging its readers to welcome Gilad Schalit home by sending him a letter via the paper’s Facebook page, which the newspaper would then pass on to Schalit once he is safely home.
Putting aside the cynic in me, which saw this front-page announcement as a way for the paper to build up its Facebook page for the benefit of its marketing department, another thought struck: Gilad Schalit probably has no idea what Facebook is. Since his capture over five years ago, the world of communication, particularly for people of his age, has changed dramatically.
In the summer of 2006, when Schalit was captured, Facebook was still a closed system for university or high school students and only opened to the general public in September that year.
Today, it has over 800 million active users, and played a large role in galvanizing support for Schalit’s release. Twitter – on which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu boastfully tweeted that the “US Sec of State called me and congratulated  me on the release of Gilad #Shalit. She said that such a decision requires guts and leadership” – had only just been launched in July 2006, while the first Apple iPhone was still another year in the making.
There will no doubt be more serious hurdles for Schalit to overcome on his return home as he readjusts to normal life, but the above examples point out just how quickly our world is changing, particularly in terms of media and communications.
In today’s reality TV-driven world, in which every inane utterance of a nonentity is fodder for the day’s press, one has to hope the Schalit family will continue to maintain the impressive dignity they have shown over the nightmare five years of Schalit’s imprisonment, and will succeed in sheltering Schalit from unnecessary media intrusion as he begins his new life.
In captivity, Schalit was a symbol on which the country could build a narrative of solidarity; now, as he is about to be freed, we must all recognize that he is a young man whose shoulders are not wide enough to bear the weight of the fame he never sought. Although the country as a whole has paid an extremely high price for his release, we do not own him and he owes us nothing; we must let him be.
In this spirit, the prime minister’s decision to host a short welcoming ceremony for Schalit on his immediate arrival home is a mistake. Although the politician in Netanyahu wants to maximize Schalit’s release as proof of his strength of leadership, this is not the time for photo opps.
But the prime minister certainly deserves praise for making a difficult decision and leading the process which has enabled Schalit’s release. In approving the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are individually responsible for the deaths of scores of Israelis, Netanyahu has shown that he is capable of throwing off his ideology and adopting a more pragmatic stance.
Back in July 2010, after a previous round of negotiations with Hamas for Schalit’s release eventually came to naught, Netanyahu had this to say: “There are prices that I am not prepared to pay... I am steadfast on two basic principles: the first principle is that dangerous terrorists will not return to the areas of Judea and Samaria from where they can continue to harm Israel's citizens.”
The second principle, he said, was that no “arch-terrorists” would be released.
The deal Netanyahu pushed through the cabinet scatters these principles to the wind. Around 100 terrorists will be returning to the West Bank (and another 200 to the Gaza Strip) and among those to be released include those who participated in the 2000 lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, and the abduction and murder of the soldiers Nahshon Waxman, Avi Sasportas, Ilan Sa’adon and Shahar Simani.
It’s not clear what has caused Netanyahu to change his mind, and why a price he refused to pay a year ago is suddenly one he can live with today. Although Yoram Cohen, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), told the cabinet (much to the annoyance of some right-wing ministers) that he supported the deal, he has also pointed out that 60 percent of released terrorists return to terror, so Netanyahu is well aware of the dangers he is taking.
But the sign of a great leader is the ability to make such decisions, even at the cost of spurning long-held, cherished beliefs. With this decision now behind him, the prime minister should take a look at the wider picture of Israel- Palestinian relations, and take the initiative to make some bold decisions in this realm too, not for the good of a single soldier and his family, but for the whole Israeli nation.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.