Will Gilad Rescue Bibi?

Community member Moran Stern discusses the implications of the prisoner swap’s timing. He is a graduate of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Middle East Studies and currently works for a DC think tank.

The timing of the final Gilad Shalit swap deal between Israel and Hamas should evoke a discussion regarding the influence of Israeli domestic politics on the calculations of the government in sealing the deal. If the supreme principal of returning an IDF soldier home, dead or alive, was mixed with considerations of political expediency, then Israel’s senior decision-makers need to provide the Israeli public with some explanations.

When Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu announced the swap deal, he spoke about a “window of opportunity” that allowed the deal to mature. 1,027 terrorists, some fiercely notorious and some strongly suspected to resume terror against Israelis, will exchanged for one IDF soldier. Following Netanyahu’s announcement, Israeli political analysts and journalists informed the Israeli public about the circumstances that opened the rare window of opportunity.

Hamas’ flexibility, Israel’s capitulation, the pressure on Hamas, the lack of military options to evacuate Gilad, the upheavals in Syria, and the political uncertainty in Egypt were listed as prime reasons for the deal’s ultimate success. Caught in euphoria, no analyst or journalist asked whether there was any link between one of Israel’s greatest moments and the grave situation of Netanyahu’s government.

In the past few months, Israel went through one of its most challenging periods. But suicide bombers are not targeting Israel’s streets; Hezbollah is not launching rockets toward the northern border; and the Arab armies are not marching on Israel’s borders. Rather, the huge challenge comes from within: social unrest, increasing social disparities, mass protests, a collapsing health system, and a dead peace process.  All of a sudden, Israel’s politicians have lots of stinky stuff to deal with. Years of political stagnation, some predating the current leadership, has given birth to a new and powerful opponent: the Israelis themselves. If the Palestinians are not pleased, let them cry in the corridors of the United Nations. If the Israelis are in the streets, well, that’s a whole new game. They cannot be gunned down, imprisoned or ignored. If the Israeli constituencies are not pleased, the political elite will bear the consequences.

So what is quicker, more uniting, more emotional, and more poll-friendly than putting aside all the problematic social issues and bring back, alive, a kidnapped Israeli soldier? When Gilad comes home and the media broadcasts the heartwarming pictures of Aviva Shalit hugging her son, we will put things in proportion. We will then realize what is really important in our life. Unaffordable housing prices? Don’t be spoiled. Live with your parents. 800 resigning physicians? No problem, we will import “real” Zionist-physicians from Europe and North America. The most important thing is that Gilad is back.

Indeed, having Gilad back is the most important thing. The paradox of releasing 1,000 plus terrorists for one soldier is precisely what distinguishes Israel and its people from the gentiles.  But if so, what made October 2011 more special than October 2010? Or October 2006? The upheavals in the Middle East, the absence of a military option, the change in the list of prisoners, and Hamas’ need for political achievement are all valid explanations. But, quite possibly, so is the need of Netanyahu’s government to win more public support and, thus, push aside the necessity to address domestic structural problems; this possibility must be questioned. If not for Gilad, then for the soldier who comes after him.

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