When It Comes to Shalit, Let's Be Quiet

Israel Has Cultural Reasons To Make Deals The U.S. Might Not

By Leonard Fein

Published October 30, 2011, issue of November 04, 2011.
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It is a favorite barb against the Zionist left that from the comfort of their homes in New York or Cleveland, they presume to tell Israel what to do, how to behave. Never mind that no one (not even the president or the secretary of state, much less dovish Jews) can “tell” Israel what to do — as if, while thoughtful Americans of different backgrounds vigorously debate the wisdom/folly of Israel’s choices, we of the Jewish left are instructed to keep our views to ourselves. Disregard the fact that as American citizens, let alone as Jews, we have a stake in Israel’s safety and welfare; forget that we are urged by Israel to advocate for this policy or that; pay no attention to the raucous debate within Israel itself. Pretend ignorance; stifle yourself.

Yet as trivial and self-serving as is the advice that we reserve our critique of Israel’s choices for pillow-talk, there is one current issue that does call us to diffidence: second-guessing Israel’s handling of the Gilad Shalit case. Regarding Shalit, we are culturally and intellectually inhibited from opining.

The intellectual inhibition: We here are not qualified to judge the threat the newly released prisoners represent, nor even the likelihood that Hamas will now redouble its efforts to capture Israeli soldiers. Obviously, such issues have been given very close consideration by the Israeli authorities.

And the cultural inhibition? As the Shalit trade was being finalized, I received a call from a Haaretz reporter. She wanted to know why it was that American Jews seemed so much more engaged by the Shalit matter than by the case of the only American prisoner being held by the Taliban. I was nonplussed. An American soldier held by the Taliban in Afghanistan? I’d had no idea. (His name, I later learned, is Bowe Bergdahl; he is from Hailey, a town in Idaho.)

My reply: Ours is an enormous country, compared with which Israel is tiny. America was never a neighborhood; Israel was, and on occasion becomes again, a nationwide neighborhood. On this particular occasion, much of that owes to the stubborn persistence of Noam and Aviva Shalit, Gilad’s parents; over the course of the five years of Gilad’s captivity, they effectively transformed Gilad into everyone’s son, a transformation very powerfully abetted by the fact that all (well, nearly all) Israel’s sons (and daughters, too) serve in the Israel Defense Forces. In short, Israel’s calculations emerge from a radically different cultural context. There’s also the underlying matter of policy: Officially, the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, in part for fear of being sucked into exactly the kind of situation that the Shalit case represents. In fact, the American policy is often honored in its breach. Yet despite its iffiness, it is furlongs far from the Israeli policy of pidyon shvu’im (redemption of the captives). Israel’s soldiers know that no effort will be spared to rescue them; Israel has, in fact, over the years freed a total of 13,509 prisoners in order to win the release of 16 of its soldiers.

Given the cultural chasm, we here must be reticent to comment on the Shalit exchange. But nothing need inhibit us from speculating on the “why now?” question.

Some say the terms Hamas was offering had softened, and that may be so. I offer, speculatively, a rather different explanation. We know that Netanyahu believes Israel “has no partner for peace,” a view that seems to please him since it takes him off the hook of concessions. Whatever slender possibility there was in negotiating with President Mahmoud Abbas — and “slender” overstates the prospects — was wrecked when the PLO chose to pursue United Nations acceptance and when Israel decided to oppose the PLO effort. And then, adding injury to insult, Israel announced an increase in housing in Gilo and the establishment of an entirely new Jewish neighborhood (“Har Hamatos”) in East Jerusalem. In such ways, Israel deliberately dooms negotiations. Yet Israel knows that, other things being equal, Western pressure for the resumption of talks with Abbas will persist.

But if Hamas displaces Fatah — a distinct possibility in the wake of Shalit — then “other things” are no longer equal. Who could then blame Israel for shunning negotiations with Hamas? What is there to negotiate with an enemy sworn to your destruction? That is how, by diabolical design, Netanyahu renders “no partner for peace” the self-fulfilling prophecy of the decade.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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