The fate of Gilad Shalit, thought resolved last night, is now again in doubt. Every problem needs a face, and Gilad's soft stare has become synonymous with the standoff between Hamas and the Israeli defense establishment. According to leaked reports, Hamas wants all of its 450 (or so) cadres released, though there has been talk of the group's agreement to have some released to Gaza, not to the West Bank, or even to have some go abroad. Israel is saying the number must be less, and is bargaining especially to release as few people as possible with "blood on their hands."
I have myself lost loved ones in a terrorist attack, and accept the claim that prison may only harden the desire to strike at Israeli civilians. I don't deny that there are serious moral questions, at least in the abstract, about democracies capitulating to terror groups. Yet I find it hard to see much value in the government's endless bargaining, which is engendering a public spectacle that often swings between soap opera and the The Price Is Right. Gilad's poor parents are camped outside the prime minister's residence, while a counter-demonstration of grief-stricken terror victims goes on across the street. Olmert's ministers are warning darkly about how Bibi Netanyahu's government will never offer as good a deal as the current government has. You can't tell bluff from spin.
FOR MOST ISRAELIS by now, the issue of bloody hands has come to seem particularly abstract. As Haaretz's hard-headed economic columnist, Nehemia Shtrasler, writes, "Who exactly doesn't have blood on his hands in the long war that has been raging in the Middle East?" The IDF has been willing to accept the deaths of perhaps 400 Gaza children to protect its soldiers in operation Cast Lead. Who in the country does not assume, given so much tit-for-tat, that there are new cadres to replace those imprisoned? Does having anyone behind bars mean that the IDF can somehow relax its guard? Has it weakened Hamas or changed the price to Israel of evading diplomatic concessions?
If there is a moral opportunity here, let it be a utilitarian one. If Gilad is home, then every Israeli soldier will know that he or she will, if captured, not be condemned to rot in some dungeon. If Gilad is home, then Hilary Clinton can get on with trying to draw Hamas into a unity government and a diplomatic process. If Gilad is home, then Marwan Barghouti will be home, and can begin to build an alternative leadership to the failing Fatah group in Ramallah. If Gilad is home, then we can have a face for a page that has been turned.
What strikes me as particularly sad about this bargaining is that, like so much else our current crop of defense intellectuals touch, the question of an exchange does not clarify how Israel's long-term interests are served, but rather how long-term interests boil down to short-term deterrent power. If Hamas can be forced to compromise, so the argument goes, that is a sign that deterrence has been reestablished. But if Israel capitulates, giving Hamas what it wants, is that not a sign that deterrence has eroded?
Hamas--having virtually nothing to offer but steadfastness--has virtually nothing to lose by walking away. This does not mean Israel is weak. But, so the argument continues, Israel cannot let itself appear weak, or it will encourage terror, come to think of it, just like being strong and ruthless encourages terror. Either way, the question of deterrence distracts us from seeking an end to the occupation. I can already see some of these Hamas people, thirty years from now, sitting in the Cafe de Flore in Paris, giving melancholy interviews about the hubris of their mentors and horrors of their youth. I wish I could be sure that Gilad Shalit will be there as well.