October 20, 2011
Amid the conflicting emotions surrounding Gilad Schalit's return to Israel this week and the concomitant release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners is a vital question that will weigh increasingly heavily in the weeks to come. Did this deal advance Israeli-Palestinian peace?
The magnitude of the prisoner exchange -- more than 1,000 Palestinians are being released to retrieve a kidnapped, innocent Israeli soldier -- might under certain circumstances create the opportunity to encourage steps to resume the long-stalled peace process. But such pragmatic thinking is too often lacking in the Middle East.
Palestinian terrorists, in a cross-border raid, seized Schalit from Israel in 2006, and murdered two other soldiers. It was a year after Israel had left Gaza, pulling out all settlers and soldiers, and transferring the territory to the Palestinian Authority. The rocket and mortar attacks on Israel, however, continued relentlessly, as Hamas spokesmen repeatedly vowed to carry on their war until the Jewish state is destroyed.
Leaders of Hamas, objecting to any Palestinian recognition of Israel, saw an opportunity with their hostage, Schalit, and have waited patiently while keeping him in isolation in Gaza for five years. He was denied visits from the International Red Cross. In exchange for a brief video of Schalit in captivity in 2009, Israel released 20 female Palestinian prisoners. One might say that was the down payment on this week's dramatic, yet painfully difficult, agreement.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was one of the most heart-wrenching decisions ever faced by a political leader. But Israelis will go to extraordinary lengths to recover captured citizens; the Jewish tradition teaches that "He who saves one life has saved the world."
Yet, while extraordinarily noble, and reassuring to Israelis who must serve in the army, the Schalit deal has inherent risks for the future, and those dangers are already apparent.
Without any adjustment in its posture toward Israel, Hamas secured the release of some of the most notorious terrorists, responsible for the most devastating carnage over the past decade. They include those responsible for the 2001 Sbarro pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem, the 2001 bombing of a Tel Aviv disco, the 2002 Passover seder massacre in Netanya, and the brutal lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in 2000.
No remorse was expressed by any of the Palestinians released on Tuesday to Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere. Instead, Hamas leaders and ex-convicts vowed to kidnap more soldiers and continue terrorism. "I hope you will walk the same path we took and God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs," Wafa al-Biss, a female terrorist, told Palestinian schoolchildren in Gaza the day after her release.
While Hamas' role as chief obstacle to peace is clear, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also has impeded the process. Abbas walked away from talks with Israel nearly three years ago. He signed a unity pact with Hamas. He did an end-run around peace talks with a unilateral gambit at the United Nations.
And he joined in this week's celebrations. "You are freedom fighters and holy warriors for the sake of God and the homeland," Abbas exulted, as he welcomed the returning terrorists to Ramallah amid cheering crowds. In contrast to the festive mood in Gaza and the West Bank, Israelis continue to agonize over the merits and long-term impact of the Schalit deal, though they yearn for peace.
Netanyahu, as his predecessors, has reached out to the Palestinians to negotiate an end to the conflict. He has counseled the Israeli people to prepare for a day when a Palestinian state will exist in peace alongside Israel. The missing partners still are the Palestinian leaders.
Lilli Platt is director of the American Jewish Committee Long Island Regional Office.