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The Trouble with the March for Gilad Shalit

The march for the release of Gilad Shalit, which began from his family home in Mizpeh Hila and is destined for the Prime Minister's house in Jerusalem, is winning public support for the notion that Israel should "pay the price." And what is the price? PM Binyamin Netanyahu listed the demands of Shalit's captors on Thursday, July 1, 2010, in a speech to the nation. Hamas, he said, wants a thousand prisoners in exchange, including 450 "heavies" convicted of violent crimes against Israelis. The remaining gaps between the sides are two: (1) Among the 450 are men from the West Bank, and Israel wants to keep them out of there, far from its major cities, by deporting them to Gaza or abroad. Their return to the West Bank, it also claims, could turn the strategic balance against Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abu Mazen. (2) There are ten on the Hamas list who Israel isn't willing to release, but Hamas insists. The fate of these ten will show which side has the upper hand.

While the imprisoned family's soldier has won support from large parts of the Israeli public, Netanyahu's reluctance has backing from the PA, Egypt and, apparently, the United States (see below). It is clear, therefore, that the struggle inside Israel is not between equals. No Israeli government can pay the price that Hamas demands.

Olmert's government, and now Netanyahu's, have done all they could to free Shalit. They slapped a cruel blockade on the Gaza Strip, creating a humanitarian disaster. Hamas tried to break out of the siege by launching rockets into southern Israel. This led to Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which left much of the Strip in ruins and 1300 of its people dead, 300 of them children. Israel too paid a price in international standing. The Goldstone Report left a deep stain. Then came Israel's heavy-handed raid on the Turkish flotilla, killing nine, with long-term international fallout.

But Netanyahu, like Olmert before him, has had to face the fact that the freeing of Shalit is bound up with complex regional circumstances. For example, according to the soldier's father, Noam, voices in the Obama Administration oppose the deal. (See this article in Hebrew, summarized in English here.) They think, he says, that the release of a thousand prisoners would strengthen Hamas in public opinion, weakening Abu Mazen. It is also known that America takes a very firm line on prisoner exchanges: no dealings with "terrorists." At a time when the US refuses to negotiate for the release of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, held by the Taliban, Obama's people find it hard to comprehend why Israel is ready to free so many, strengthening Hamas relative to the PA and Egypt.

The unstated purpose of Israel's Operation Cast Lead was to force Hamas to abandon armed struggle and reach an understanding, through Egypt's mediation, with Abu Mazen; this was supposed to create, among other things, an opening for agreement on Shalit's release. But the Operation got snarled because of the many Palestinian casualties. Its success has been merely partial. Hamas has indeed ceased firing rockets into Israel, but its standing in the Strip has not been damaged, and its conditions for Shalit's release remain as firm as before.

The Shalit family sees this too. On the day the government decided to soften the siege, the family decided to take off its gloves and express no confidence in Netanyahu. Without the main bargaining chip, the blockade, the Shalits demand that he should pay the full price that Hamas is asking. Here Israeli society is revealed in its weakness. The march to Jerusalem clearly plays into the hands of Hamas and hurts the government's ability to hold firm. Netanyahu as politician is torn between (1) the need to protect his electoral future by yielding to public pressure and (2) the need not to bolster Hamas, a move that would weaken the PA, Egypt and, in the long run, Israel itself.

The group marching to Jerusalem, graced by celebrities such as super-model Bar Refaeli and singer-composer Shlomo Artzi, epitomizes the modern part of Israel: Ashkenazi, lovers of things green and quality time, hikes in nature and trips abroad. They strive to school their kids for positions in the top branches of the economy, such as high-tech or finance. They are patriotic, contributing to society, while despising politics because of its corruption. Politically, they are to be located between Kadima and Likud. They favor an end to the occupation, but only in order to get rid of that troublesome burden. The separation barrier suits them fine.

The marchers send their children to the army, but only on condition that the State bring them home safe and sound. If, to this end, it is necessary to tighten the siege on Gaza and invade it with disproportionate force, or invade Lebanon, sowing ruin and destruction, so be it. The main thing is that the kid should not get hurt. Every wounded soldier represents a lapse on the part of the government, a sign that it didn't use enough firepower.

And so the march for Gilad Shalit is not a march for a different Israel, and it is certainly not a march for peace. There is nothing humanitarian in it except the natural wish of parents to see their son again, home and healthy. This is a march that perpetuates the Israel of the individual, the Israel of kef (fun) and sababa (groovy). It doesn't demand of Netanyahu that he end the occupation, freeze construction in the settlements or take down the wall. It doesn't demand a solid peace that will stop the killing and imprisoning. This is a demonstration of weakness and narrow horizons.

Every Israeli government knows the price that will have to be paid, not just to bring home Gilad Shalit but to risk its children no more. The price is this: to announce the end of the occupation, to dismantle settlements, and to recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Until today no government has arisen that would be ready to do that, and there is no such government on the horizon. Even sadder is the lack of prospect for a march as long and wide as the march for Gilad Shalit, a march that would raise a clear demand for an end to the occupation, to war, to bloodshed. What we see today is a march in blinders, the march of a people that refuses to recognize reality, a march to nowhere. "end"

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