POWs and the hostages of politics

The Chinese philosophy of non-action meets Israeli coalition needs.

schalit demo 224 88 (photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
schalit demo 224 88
(photo credit: Channel 10 [file])
When Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi was a young paratrooper serving in what was still called Operation Peace for Galilee - now known as the First Lebanon War - his mother, former MK Geula Cohen, a right-wing hard-liner, was asked what she would do if her son were taken prisoner. Her reply: "As a mother, I would be outside the Prime Minister's Office with a megaphone 24 hours a day calling on the government to do anything it took to obtain his release. As a Knesset member, I would sit inside the PM's Office and tell him not to listen to the people outside." The poignant answer came back to mind last week as the subject of politics and the captives mixed as never before. The families of Gilad Schalit, held captive by Hamas since June 2006, and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, kidnapped by Hizbullah the following month, have been using more than a megaphone: They have been using the courts, the media and even a savvy Internet campaign to get their message across. The Schalits called on Facebook users around the world to post a photo of Gilad on their profiles on the anniversary of his capture. The current prime minister, one gets the impression, does not listen to the people shouting outside his office - or he wouldn't still be sitting in the chair inside it. While ever-growing numbers of the general public and such luminaries as Winograd Committee member Yehezkel Dror - an outspoken member of the panel that investigated Lebanon II - were calling on Ehud Olmert to resign, the premier was negotiating a way to stay in power. If "power" is the right word. In a surprise maneuver, Olmert and Labor leader Ehud Barak - just a few hours before a critical vote - reached an agreement under which Kadima would hold primary elections for the party's leadership by September 25 and Labor would not support a bill to dissolve the Knesset. Hanegbi, who helped negotiate the deal, said the coalition had turned over a new leaf and that "now everyone can focus on their work" since the cloud of early elections had been removed. I half thought of calling his mother and asking her what she thought. But why pour salt on her wounds? The right-wing in the Knesset quickly responded to the reprieved coalition by issuing comments evoking the image of Barak as someone who bolts from responsibility and Olmert as a politician mixed in shady deals. I remember interviewing Hanegbi in 1997 when he had been appointed justice minister in the Likud government under Binyamin Netanyahu. It was shortly after a controversial speech in the Knesset in which, replying on behalf of the government during a no-confidence vote, Hanegbi attacked Barak by mentioning the Tze'elim II training accident and using the phrase coined by former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid "Ehud barah [fled]." Karnit Goldwasser, wife of MIA Ehud Goldwasser, verbally hit out last week in the same vein, reportedly stating: "Ha'ehudim barhu" - the Ehuds fled. Her behavior is a lot more understandable than that of Hanegbi at the time. Just before the cabinet was expected to vote on a prisoner swap with Hizbullah that would bring her husband back, she learned that the IDF chief rabbi had begun deliberations on whether he and Regev could be declared dead - something that, if true, could significantly lower the price Israel would pay in an exchange or, if false, seriously endanger the hostages' lives. In the interview, Hanegbi excused himself by saying he had acted in accordance with "the norms of the opposition, where, in issues of utmost importance, you don't wait for the High Court decision." He was later forced to apologize after the court and state comptroller cleared Barak of any suggestion that he had abandoned wounded soldiers in the field. But as surely as the image of the wounded soldiers will continue to haunt Barak, and the same way that Ariel Sharon could never live down the massacre by Phalangists at Sabra and Shatilla, Olmert's career - what's left of it, anyway - will be marked by his (mis)handling of the Lebanon war and investigations into five (we're counting) criminal cases. Apart from anything else, if Olmert had significant evidence of the likelihood that the two reservists died in the initial Hizbullah attack or shortly after it, he should not have used bringing them home as a reason for launching the war on Hizbullah. The fact that Hizbullah launched missiles on Israeli civilians would have been cause enough for action. Given the results of that war - and the person ultimately responsible for the conflict was Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah - Olmert is now reluctant to take any action. It reminds me of a stream in Chinese philosophy: The wu-wei (non-action) school of Daoism (Taoism) held that yielding to others was the most effective response to the problems of human existence. Naturally, doing nothing to fight it, wu-wei headed for extinction despite its laudable intentions of achieving perfect harmony. It's not clear when non-action became a guiding principle of the Israeli government - the residents of Sderot and the surrounding communities would probably say it has been in force for at least the last seven years in which they have been bombarded with Kassams from Gaza. Ask the families of the Sultan Yakoub Three - the MIAs missing since June 1982 - or Ron Arad, captured in Lebanon in 1986, and they will probably claim that for at least 20 years not enough action has been taken. It's certainly been a long time - 32 years on July 4, to be precise - since the legendary Entebbe rescue showed that sometimes risks have to be taken and the country's leaders have to be brave enough to take action. For without it, the whole country can, in effect, be held hostage. There is a reason we all identify with the fate of Schalit, Regev and Goldwasser - they could be anyone's friend or relative. Which raises the question what price should we pay for their release? And who has the right to determine it: the families of the missing soldiers, for whom no price can be too high; the families of terror victims, who fear their numbers will grow with every Palestinian prisoner released; all those families of IDF soldiers and reservists who need to know that - political rhetoric aside - their sons and daughters will not be abandoned in the field; or those who are raising children who will one day serve in the army? If it were my son - heaven forbid - I'd be shouting through that megaphone day and night. But, as an ordinary citizen, I hope that the government is listening to reason, not emotions. At the moment, it looks like decisions are being taken - if at all - out of political considerations and the person who is ultimately dictating how many prisoners and who will be released is Nasrallah. Worse still, when Olmert and Barak do actually decide on a course of action, it seems to be determined by the fight for political survival, not the country's strategic survival. Our leaders can pick their battles, but the public, whenever the elections are finally held, should pick its leaders with their actions and non-action in mind.