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Are There Lessons To Be Learned From the Gilad Shalit Prisoner Exchange?

Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily. by Jeff Pozmantier

Gilad Shalit reunites with his father after five years in Hamas captivity. / Photo Courtesy of Israeli Defense Forces

What are the lessons to be learned from the deal to release Israeli soldierGilad Shalit in exchange for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners? It took only a few days for the Palestinian and Israeli role players and tactic leaders to get into their costumes and (depending on their assigned parts) either beat the justification or criticism drums. Self-reflection on the timing was as missing as Shalit was for five years. Why not just put away the talking points and revel in the fact that, after a heart-wrenching absence, a son of Israel's extended family was finally coming home? Here are some of the most frequently cited lessons, along with some of my thoughts on the teachers and their resource materials: Terrorism works. Now all Israelis will be kidnapping targets wherever they are, whether that's on the border or just sitting in a cafe in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu sold out Israel's future. Iran and all of the terrorists will be emboldened. In the narrow sense that (less than 20 percent of) Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails were released, the prisoner exchange was a Hamas victory. But it would not be hard to draw a line from the Shalit kidnapping to an Israeli series of counter-responses in Gaza that resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and injuries; world-wide opprobrium that has led both to Hamas's isolation and weakening relative to Fatah; and a blockade and border tightening (co-enforced by Egypt) that has produced massive unemployment and humanitarian calamities. The kidnapping worked? Yes, since prisoners were released, Hamas's popularity has increased. But Hamas's 1027 to one prisoner exchange plan is like Herbert Cain's 999 tax plan. Both have produced what will prove to be a very temporary ascendancy in popularity. Regardless of the nature of the Palestinian criminals and their crimes or how Israel and its backers see the lopsided exchange, these are Palestinian sons and daughters who, after many years, and with few if any family visits, are coming home. The Palestinian reaction following the release should not have been a surprise. However, Hamas ultimately needs broader and sustained public support to retain a long-term hold on Gaza. That means, despite the various Hamas bloviations about kidnapping more Israelis, that Hamas leaders, along with their Iranian and Syrian backers, must decide whether taking more Israelis as prisoners might actually result in diminishing their strategic obstructionist influence and strengthening Fatah's role as the main Palestinian representative. That could happen if another kidnapping led Israel to undertake a strong military response and if the United Statesand most of the Arab League isolated Hamas by reaching a peace agreement with the West Bank Fatah government. Israel needs to immediately and forcefully respond to any suspected Palestinian terrorism. It sounds simple and logical. You attack us, then we attack you. MK Danny Danon is leading this singularly focused charge. According to Danon, therecent stabbing in Jerusalemand thesuspected arsonin northern Israel reflect the Palestinian"culture of terrorism." Danon wants Netanyahu to start destroying the homes of any Palestinian suspects to show that Israel is still focused and determined to defend its citizens, despite the prisoner exchange. For Danon, past performance is clearly not a guarantee of future results. Israel has played this elimination and demonization game many times before and it hasn't worked - unless success is measured in terms of the hardening of positions on both sides and the reduction in Israeli support throughout the world and within the Jewish Diaspora. To be clear: any nation is entitled to respond against attackers who lead terrorist attacks. But to demonize an entire people and suggest, before you have the facts, that a specific incident can only be a result of an orchestrated Palestinian campaign - this is the antithesis of leadership. And to only respond with military solutions to what is now essentially a diplomatic issue is, at best, horribly misguided. This shows how important it is to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is the Palestinians' David Ben-Gurion. Hamas is the rough equivalent of Israel's pre-1948 Stern gang. Tzipi Livni, head of Israel's Kadima party and Netanyahu's loyal (and reliable) opposition, claims Netanyahu's action empowers Hamas and is thus a strategic threat to Israel. But the thrust of her inarticulately formulated message seems to be that the Israeli government should have been working just as hard to empower Fatah, the much more moderate West Bank Palestinian leadership, by engaging in peace talks with them. Additionally, she wants the government tonegotiate the release of remaining prisoners with Fatah so that Fatah is strengthened.

Palestinians hold photos of their imprisoned loved ones at a Gaza rally in January of 2006. About 20 percent of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails were released in exchange for Gilad Shalit. / Photo Courtesy of Free Gaza Movement

Hamas is still weak. It will get a temporary bump in popularity, but considering the horrible economic conditions in Gaza and Hamas's widespread unpopularity, in a month things will be back to abnormal. Netanyahu made the easy decision, the one almost 80 percent of Israelis supported. It only highlights how unlikely he is to make the tough strategic decisions necessary to reach a peace agreement. One Israeli writer compared Netanyahu's efforts on Shalit's behalf to clipping coupons to retain credibility. The lesson, at least for now, is how little Netanyahu hasdone to secure Israel for future generations. The New York Times is anti-Israel. While many in the Jewish community could claim this conclusion, the man who has written two blogs in four post-Shalit release days wins the misdirected focus honor. That'll teach the New York Times not to ignore American Jewish Committee head David Harris's editorial submissions. Netanyahu's action was anti-Israel because it harms Israel's security. You'll be surprised who publicly led this chorus. Or maybe not. Michael Rubin, a leader of U.S. Jewish conservatism, wrote in Commentary that Netanyahu "has legitimized terrorism and ensured the scourge will continue." The Zionist Organization of America, an organization led by Mort Klein that regularly attacks Jewish Diaspora groups like J Street when they publicly disagree with Israel about its approach to the peace process, also stepped in. Apparently disagreement with Israel is kosher so long as it comes from Klein. Ha'aretz columnist Bradley Burston noted this hypocrisy and commented, "Why should people who have claimed the title of Zionists of America be swayed by the feelings of the overwhelming majority of Israelis - who are, after all, the ones who are putting themselves and their loved ones at direct risk in accepting the deal? The leaders of the ZOA are...a very particular sort of hardass. More Zionist than Thou. Hardliners by proxy." The "creme de la creme" of Palestinian society have successfully escaped the shackles of their "dungeons" and "concentration camps" and will now participate in the future liberation of Palestine. At least this is the view of Al Qassam, a Hamas publication that represents a strident and thankfully minority view. Of course the histrionic rant of Emergency Committee for Israel Board member Rachel Adams is also, thankfully, a minority view. Adams called for the slaughter of innocent Palestinian men, women, and children now that Shalit is free. ECI should revoke Adams' membership and encourage her to get a new perspective and prescription. Fatah and Hamas may now be better positioned to reconcile, which can only help lead to a final peace agreement. They even appeared together in the West Bank to celebrate. This is the "looking to the future" narrative and one that offers the most hope for a final resolution. Hamas offers only intransigence as a platform and continued conflict as their raison d'etre. Fatah could be a builder in the mold of the original Zionists. Israel should act on the opportunity. So what are the lessons of the Shalit release? Clearly, they are malleable. They can be whatever you want them to be. For Israel and Palestine's sake, let's hope the main lesson is to act with a strategic focus and to stop getting lost in all of the traditional tactical weeds that entangle everyone in hopelessness. The author serves on J Street's finance committee and is the developer, a unique website that advocates for Israel to take specific, proactive steps that will lead to a two-state solution. To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s free newsletter, sign up for Tikkun Magazine emails or visit us online. You can also like Tikkunon Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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