Editor's Notes: A nation held hostage

Editors Notes A nation

Gilad Schalit has become our nation's child - and now the symbol, potentially, of either our heroic, vital humanity or of our essential, self-preserving clear-headedness "Among the most important policies which must be adopted in the face of terrorism is the refusal to release convicted terrorists from prisons. This is a mistake that Israel, once the leader in anti-terror techniques, has made over and over again. Release of convicted terrorists before they have served their full sentences seems like an easy and tempting way of defusing blackmail situations in which innocent people may lose their lives. But its utility is momentary at best. "Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught their punishment will be brief. Worse, by leading terrorists to think such demands are likely to be met, they encourage precisely the kind of terrorist blackmail which they are supposed to defuse... "In the case of a prolonged and sustained [terrorist] campaign lasting months or years, the natural disgust of the public with the terrorist's message begins to break down and is often replaced by a willingness to accommodate terrorist demands. By preparing terrorism-education campaigns... the government can inoculate the population against the impulse to give in when faced with protracted terrorist pressure... "And once the terrorists know that virtually the entire population will stand behind the government's decision never to negotiate with them, the possibility of actually extracting political concessions will begin to look exceedingly remote to them... "Terrorism has the unfortunate quality of expanding to fill the vacuum left to it by passivity or weakness. And it shrinks accordingly when confronted with resolute and decisive action. Terrorists may test this resolution a number of times before they draw back, and a government has to be prepared to sustain its anti-terror policies through shrill criticism, anxious calls to give in to terrorists' demands, and even responses of panic. But it is a certainty that there is no way to fight terrorism - other than to fight it." - From the concluding chapter of the 1995 book "Fighting Terrorism," by Binyamin Netanyahu. RE-READING THE above argument amid the current national anguish over the Gilad Schalit prisoner exchange, one is struck by the dispassion of its tone. Netanyahu is right, of course. He was then and he is now. Giving in to terrorism only emboldens it. And Israel has been giving in, more and more disproportionately, further emboldening terrorism, for years. But Netanyahu wasn't prime minister when he wrote those words in 1995. He could afford the luxury of writing without passion, without emotional connection. Gilad Schalit was a little boy in 1995. Now he's our nation's blameless heart-wrencher, wasting away in some hellhole in Gaza because, as of this writing, Netanyahu's government hasn't given in to all of Hamas's outrageous demands. Netanyahu's government has indicated it will likely give in to most of them, even though the prime minister knows "this is a mistake that Israel, once the leader in anti-terror techniques, has made over and over again." He knows and he's trying to mitigate the damage. He's cast around for alternatives. But his security chiefs could not provide a rescue option. And to date he's chosen to eschew the renewal of previously attempted routes of direct pressure such as arrests of Hamas politicians and targeted strikes on key figures. So he's trying to drive a better bargain. This isn't the book-writing world of 1995. The terrorist challenge comes not from a small, non-state organization but from a government on our southern doorstep, a terrorist government with religious motivation that fully intends to take over the leadership of Palestine. How, in this impossibly complex reality, is the prime minister to bring home Schalit without crowning Hamas and causing strategic damage to Israel? Or, alternatively, how is he not to bring home Schalit without causing strategic damage in a nation of watching mothers and fathers who send their children out to protect it? Perhaps Israeli Arabs will be left off the final list - averting at least that debilitating deferral of Israeli sovereignty to the Islamists. Perhaps some of the bloodiest killers will be sent into exile. The 13 Palestinian gunmen dispatched to Europe after the 2002 siege in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity are all understood to still be overseas, seven years later. But which law-abiding nation would play host to the worst of the convicted murderers? And what benefit would there be in exiling them to parts of this region where they would be free to plot more bloodshed? Perhaps Netanyahu will yet manage to keep the most dangerous terrorists behind Israeli bars after all - the plotter of the Netanya Park Hotel Pessah massacre, the overseer of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi's assassination. Perhaps. Perhaps. IT'S DIFFERENT when you're prime minister. All the theories suddenly get overwhelmed by the realities. The Schalits, who raised their child for national service and now rightfully insist that you bring him home, are outside your front door. And they are wonderful people. Loving. Determined. Heroic, even. For Aviva, Gilad's mother, to decline to criticize ministers who have opposed the terms of the deal by saying this week that "it isn't a question of right or wrong," and that "I can understand the difficulty the ministers are facing," was remarkable. But she also said: "He can still be brought back alive." Indeed, he can. But at what price? IT'S DIFFERENT for Netanyahu when theory comes up against reality, and it's different for the entire nation. We go back and forth, circling and re-evaluating and arguing with ourselves, longing for clarity, sometimes convincing ourselves that there is clarity. What there is, is blackmail; they snatched a soldier and they want us to free murderers and potential murderers to get him back. The nation is with the Schalits - engaged by their dignity, their helplessness, their iron will. And families nationwide imagine themselves facing the same plight, with their child - one moment safely within Israel, protecting our border; the next dragged away into Gaza - kept tantalizingly just out of reach by murderous extortionists. Pay the ransom, we urge from our gut. Over hundreds and hundreds of obsessively documented days, Gilad has become our nation's child - and now the symbol, potentially, of either our heroic, vital humanity or of our essential, self-preserving clear-headedness. The nation is not thinking clearly, but then nor is it required to. It sees a choice between failing the families of the already bereaved by setting free the terrorists who killed their loved ones, or failing the family of Gilad Schalit, whose loved one still lives and breathes. And however fraught, that dilemma is clearly solved: Save what can still be saved. But is that really the equation? Isn't the choice between the Schalits and the families who have yet to be bereaved, the families as yet unnamed whose lives will be torn asunder when proven Palestinian killers are set free again to hatch new schemes? Back and forth we go, because, actually, it's not that black and white. Maybe the IDF, the same IDF that gave Gilad Schalit his uniform and whose top commander is adamantly prepared to take the risk of combating a new wave of terrorism for the sake of bringing him home, will frustrate those freed terrorists' next attempts at kidnapping and murder. "The resistance, which has succeeded in capturing Gilad Schalit," Hamas's Khaled Mashaal boasted two months ago, "is capable of capturing another Schalit and another Schalit and another Schalit, until not a single prisoner will remain in the enemy's jails." Well, maybe not. The IDF frustrated Hamas's carefully laid plans to kidnap soldiers in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Aware of the dangers, it can do more to forestall them. Maybe the IDF, the Shin Bet et al will prevent others dying at the hands of the terrorists; look at the success in radically reducing attacks from the hellish proportions of the suicide-bomber onslaught six and seven years ago. Maybe they can prevent further loss of soldiers' and civilians' lives even if we are forced to wage another war on terror. Gilad is alive and we can get him back. That is fact and the rest is speculation. This young man is a son of Israel, and the extraordinary lengths we go for our children is why this country is different. It's why we're different from those brutal regimes around us. It's why we love this country. It's why we send our children to fight to protect it. BUT THEN again, back and forth, isn't this argument just a case of emotion sweeping us away? Isn't cold fact against us? In years past, we might have invoked the claim of mere "speculation" to douse the contention that releasing terrorists for hostages will surely mean more of our loved ones will die. But nowadays, there's bitter, bloody evidence out there. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, in a report last year, quoted an estimate by the security services that some 50 percent of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel since 1985 had returned to terrorism, "either as a perpetrator, planner or accomplice," killing hundreds of Israelis. In the case of the 1985 "Jibril deal" for the return of three soldiers captured in Lebanon, the report states, "the Israel Defense Ministry determined that 114 out of the 238 [convicted terrorists] who were released returned to terrorism." A single example from a more recent "exchange": Matsab Hashalmon, jailed in 2003 for membership in a terrorist organization and freed in the January 2004 deal with Hizbullah that saw the release of Elhanan Tenenbaum, promptly recruited the two suicide bombers who blew up two buses in Beersheba just seven months later, killing 16 civilians. Sixteen. One freed killer. Sixteen devastated families. But that was in the bad days of the suicide bomber onslaught? Doesn't the recent calm marginalize those statistics? Well, there is more. WE HAVE reached no peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas, but he insists he seeks a viable accommodation alongside us, and speaks out, even this week, in Arabic, about his opposition to a third intifada, to a revival of armed struggle against Israel. Hamas's Mashaal, visiting Teheran last week, by contrast, made explicit that "resistance is the strategic option of Hamas, resistance groups and the Palestinian people, and we will never surrender to political and military pressures." Won't an ill-considered exchange merely feed the beast? Won't it make an absolute mockery of Israel's controversial effort to reduce support for Hamas by maintaining a blockade on Gaza? We punish the ordinary people but capitulate to their extortionist leadership? There are few who dispute the immense boost Hamas would gain from a mass prisoner release, secured by extorting Israel over Schalit. Hamas is already preparing its victory celebrations. Hamas is already poised to celebrate this exposure of Israeli impotence - the mighty Israel of Entebbe and Osirak, incapable of extracting a soldier from the patch of land next door - this destruction of Israeli deterrence, this triumphant rebound from the demonstration of Israeli military power in Operation Cast Lead. Hamas is already contemplating the momentum this vindication of its strategy will provide for its supporters in the West Bank - and the momentum this will give to Hizbullah in Lebanon and to their would-be nuclear state sponsor, Iran. Hamas is already anticipating the blow to the credibility of relative moderates such as Abbas. Hamas is already gauging how far forward this will take it toward the full dominance of the Palestinian polity, en route to the full dominance of Palestine. DEEP, DEEP down, many Israelis know all of this. We are not stupid people. We know that, even as the inner cabinet was weighing the terms of the deal on Monday, another family was being torn apart. Mor Cohen was killed in a training accident, shot dead through what ought to have been an impermeable wall during an exercise on the Golan Heights. "I always feared he would be kidnapped," said his mother, Ricky. "And now he has been; now he has been snatched from me." Stoically, astoundingly, she added that she did not blame the army for his death. The family mourned; Mor's father collapsed. The nation watched in horror. And then the nation moved on. But Schalit is different. Don't "lay all the problems of the Middle East onto our son's narrow shoulders," Aviva and Noam Shalit pleaded in a letter to the prime minister this week. How can the heart not be moved by such a plea? How right and just it is. Why should Gilad have found himself at this nexus? What did he do to deserve this? Get him out... Mor Cohen is dead. It is tragic. But there is nothing we can do now to bring him back. Gilad Schalit is alive. We can save him. We don't want to think about how the life of the nation might be affected by another of what the Winograd Commission on the Second Lebanon War branded these "crazy deals," in this case empowering a movement strategically committed to our destruction. And, again, finally, that's understandable and it is legitimate. We're allowed to be moved by our emotions, our sympathies, our humanity. We, the people, are allowed not to have to think about the wider implications for our own well-being. And in a country that requires national conscription, a country where mothers and fathers nationwide have sons and daughters in uniform today and are preparing to send sons and daughters to fight for our defense tomorrow - a country where all those families are watching what their government now does to save a single, hapless soldier - it's not quite so simple to say "We don't do deals with terrorists." The theories so expertly articulated by Netanyahu the 1995 prime ministerial candidate have come smack up against the realities confronting Netanyahu the 2009 prime minister. Can he, dare he, strike a deal with Hamas? Can he, dare he, fail to strike one? There's no simple decision, but there is a right one. And it's not for the people of this nation, held hostage by Hamas, to take. That's why we have leadership.