Time for Gilad Schalit

Israel is negotiating with Hamas for his release as if time was of no consideration.

schalit smiles 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
schalit smiles 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Resolve is normally an admirable quality in a leader, but not in Ehud Olmert's case. His stubborn refusal to vacate the Prime Minister's Office, despite his sinking in a sea of scandals, is an affront to the Israeli electorate. Olmert should have had the decency to stand down immediately after the publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report into the failings of the Second Lebanon War. His refusal to do so then, on the spurious grounds that he was the person to repair the damage, is costing him now, as the criminal investigations into his past behavior taint his reputation even further. Last week's depressing exchange with Hizbullah, and the return of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in coffins, was the final proof of the failure of the Second Lebanon War. A war that was launched with grandiose promises to bring "the boys back home" ended with Israel having to free a cold-blooded murderer in return for the two soldiers' remains and the end of any hope of ever receiving a convincing explanation as to what happened to missing IAF navigator Ron Arad. Even more disturbingly, Hizbullah is now in a stronger state than it was at the beginning of July 2006. According to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Shi'ite organization now has an arsenal of 40,000 rockets, three times more than at the start of the Second Lebanon War. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the fighting, is being eroded into irrelevancy as Hizbullah continues to smuggle weapons into south Lebanon. NOTHING THAT Olmert has done since the end of the war can redeem this failure and, in the meantime, we have had to suffer the revelations into the prime minister's dubious travel arrangements and questionable election financing. Unfortunately, it is not only Olmert's reputation that is suffering. With a weak prime minister at the helm, the government has no chance of making any meaningful decisions, either in terms of advancing the peace process with the Palestinians or Syria or, more pressingly, in combatting the Iranian nuclear threat. Although it was Syrian President Bashar Assad's cold-shouldering of Olmert at the recent summit of Mediterranean countries in Paris that caught the headlines, the more disturbing lack of communication is that between Olmert and his senior cabinet colleagues, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Such is the antipathy between the two Kadima politicians that Livni not only ignored Olmert throughout the duration of the conference, she even preferred to take a commercial flight home, rather than share a ride on the prime minister's plane. Livni, of course, had the chance to depose Olmert after the Winograd Committee's interim report, but her lack of nerve condemned the country to his staying in office. Her failure to seize the moment then raises serious questions now as to whether she is the right person to replace him. Meanwhile, Olmert's relations with his defense minister and senior coalition partner, Ehud Barak, are hardly any better, following Barak's successful ultimatum to Kadima that unless it set in motion the political machinery to depose Olmert, Labor would pull out of the coalition and bring down the government. Unfairly, Barak has not received the credit he deserves for forcing Kadima to face reality but when Olmert finally leaves the Prime Minister's Office, it will be more due to Barak than any of the Kadima contenders for the premiership. Barak's move - the leader of one party forcing the members of another party to challenge their leader - is unprecedented in Israeli political history. THE PROBLEM is, of course, that even though Olmert is doomed politically, his premiership will drag on for many months, perhaps even into 2009. The Kadima primaries are scheduled to take place at the end of September and the Knesset will only reconvene after its summer recess in October. During this time, and until Kadima's new leader manages to form a new coalition, Olmert will likely as not continue as a lame duck. While little can be expected of him in this period, there is one thing he can do: devote his remaining time in office (that is, the time he has to spare from defending himself against criminal wrongdoing) to securing the release of Gilad Schalit. As Israel learned in the sad case of Ron Arad, time is of the essence. Although he has already been a prisoner for more than two years, and there is no telling as to his mental and physical state, we do know that Schalit is still alive. There is, however, no guarantee as to how long he will remain so. At present, Israel is negotiating with Hamas for Schalit's release as if time was of no consideration, despite this not being the case. As Barak has pointed out, the relative quiet in Gaza provides an opportunity to move the negotiations forward. The price for Schalit's release is known and though high, it is not higher than has been paid in the past in previous prisoner exchanges. If Israel was prepared to release Samir Kuntar to Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah in return for two dead bodies, then it has to be prepared to make a similarly distasteful payment in return for Gilad Schalit. Ending his captivity will not restore Olmert's reputation, but it should be his overriding priority. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.