A Hostage Situation: As the Gaza Ceasefire Takes Hold, Assessing the Stakes in Speaking to Hamas, Syria, and Iran

November 28, 2006

The Palestinian journalist who addressed one of our European Project Interchange groups a few weeks ago was visibly angry-and this time not (or rather, not only) with the Israeli "occupiers." From Damascus, he said, Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al, oblivious to the suffering of his own people, was holding hostage not only Gilad Shalit, whose release is the key to any progress in Palestinian-Israeli relations, but the entire Palestinian people-and most certainly the population of Gaza, whose life has been steadily deteriorating into chaos. The situation might be changing now, to some extent, as the ceasefire negotiated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (and in effect, bearing the imprint of Hamas's consent) takes hold. Yet the image remains relevant: Indeed, the notion of a hostage situation, sadly familiar to us from news reports in real life as well as from its dramatized versions, can be extended to describe the entire regional situation.
To begin with, there are the specific Israeli hostages still held: Shalit in Gaza; Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in Lebanon; and Ron Arad, dead (most probably) or alive, apparently in Iran, in the hands of a regime that to this day refuses to give any sign whatsoever as to his whereabouts. (And there are other missing soldiers and persons who may or may not be in enemy hands.) Then there are the residents of S'derot and the northwestern Negev, held hostage in their daily lives by the ever present prospect of a Qassam attack; and the broader populations on both sides whose suffering is manipulated, deliberately and knowingly, by the terror organizations, so as to break Israel's will and at the same time delegitimize Israeli responses in the eyes of the world. (The choice of a grandmother as a suicide bomber last Thursday, for example, was designed-there is no other way to interpret it-to remove yet another segment of Palestinian society from those who received the benefit of the presumption of innocence at checkpoints and in combat zones.)

Moreover, the entire nation of Lebanon has been hijacked this summer, without the permission of its own government, and put directly in harm's way by an organization serving foreign (Iranian and Syrian) interests, that threatens now to throw the country into civil war if these interests do not continue to be served on Lebanese soil. Meanwhile, in Iraq, both Syria and Iran are playing up their disruptive potential, holding a gun to the head not only of the majority of Iraqis who wish to see an end to the violence, but also to the large American and Allied expeditionary force, which continues to bleed under daily attacks. In other words, in each and every one of the three impending civil wars, as King Abdullah II of Jordan has defined them in a recent warning, it is Syria and Iran who are in a position to escalate the crisis if they so choose. 

It is not surprising that, under these circumstances, there are voices in high places-in Israel and in the West-calling for talks. Indeed, the decision to uphold the ceasefire and to wait patiently, even as it is still intermittently broken, reflects this sense on the part of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (if not the view of some of his military advisers) that the hostages, in Sderot and elsewhere, need a respite; and Shalit deserves a serious effort to gain his release, even if at a painful price in terrorists (some 1,000 in all?) to be released as part of the emerging "bargain." In a similar fashion, but on a much larger scale, the idea of finding channels for dialogue with Hamas, Syria, and ultimately with the present regime in Iran is under active consideration in Washington and elsewhere-the hope being that this would keep them from doing further harm.

As any police emergency team leader would attest, speaking-sometimes softly, always urgently-is definitely an important part of any attempt to manage a hostage situation. It may well emerge as a necessary element in the next phase of Middle East developments, if for no other reason than the very real threat that the hostage-takers pose: It is a real gun they have in their hands, and they do shoot people who stand in their way. But as the editorial writers of the Economist (November 18) put it, echoing a similar warning by Henry Kissinger, it is necessary to recognize what cannot be done: "Let Iran go nuclear in return for some help on the margin in Iraq? Hand Lebanon back to Mr Assad in order to split Syria from Iran? Surely not. It is good to talk, but expecting too much from Iran and Syria would be a mistake."
There are, in other words, four basic rules that it would be wise to follow in handling this hostage situation, or others:

  • Bear in mind the nature of the predicament we are in. No amount of talking would transform this into a therapy session or a peace process. The danger of a "Stockholm Syndrome"-an attempt to understand, which slides into sympathy with the perpetrators-hovers in the background.
  • Do not mistake the motives behind the hostage-takers' action. In this case, they are not desperadoes on the run. True, Hamas is on the terror lists; the Syrian regime faces an international indictment for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (and should long ago have been castigated for the pillage and abuse of their neighbor); and Iran faces, finally and at long, long last, an indictment in Argentina for the mass murder of Jews, as such-not Israelis, not "Zionists"-in the AMIA bombing of 1994. They may be outlaws, but they are not yet on the run. They have broad ambitions, which include the weakening and ultimate destruction of Israel, and they use their present position to pursue them.
  • Insofar as speaking does gain time, it is vital that this time be used wisely-to weaken the hostage-takers' position and to be constantly alert to the opportunities that might arise to overturn their local advantage and to deny them the weapons through which they seek power.
  • Finally, it is necessary for all the intended victims to keep joint counsel. Israel has woken up-and this was reflected in the conduct and outcome of the last war in Lebanon-to the realization that others in the region who view the prospect of an Islamist and Iranian ascendancy with as much horror as we do are "in the same boat" with us. But this should not be our lesson alone, and counsel cuts both ways. This brings to mind another boat-in one of the most dramatic hostage situations in the literary imagination-adrift in the Gulf Stream in Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. Captain Harry Morgan, facing bank- robbing revolutionaries intent on taking him at gunpoint to Cuba and then shooting him, did everything that the above three guidelines would require-yet tragedy was inevitable. "One man alone ain't got. No man alone now."  Hemingway adds: "It had taken him a long time to get it out and it had taken him all of his life to learn it." 
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