I have been thinking about the 23-year-old Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who has now spent four years as a captive of Hamas.
To their credit, the Israeli people are simply going crazy over this boy (although the Israeli far right simply tells Israelis to "man up," he's just a soldier). Israelis want him out and seem willing to pay any price (primarily in the form of Palestinian prisoners) to get him home.
The Netanyahu government refuses to be steamrolled by the Israeli people. Although Israel has been negotiating with Hamas (in secret and through intermediaries) for his release, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists on the principle of not negotiating with terrorists. Of course, it's a principle in principle only. If Shalit mattered to him, Bibi would get him out fast.
The Israeli government negotiates prisoner exchanges, and other matters, with both Hamas and Hezbollah whenever it feels like it. (Remember when it freed the nastiest terrorist in Israeli custody, Samir Kuntar, who murdered a father and his child in cold blood, in exchange for the bodies of two soldiers held by Hezbollah? Or when Ariel Sharon handed 400 prisoners to Hezbollah in return for one of his business buddies?)
In any case, the Israeli people are right. The Israeli government is not doing enough to free Shalit. And, at this rate, he will never be freed.
I understand, of course, that Gilad Shalit is just one young man. There are thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails (these are the people Hamas wants out in exchange for Shalit) and even more Palestinians whose lives are made sheer hell by the Gaza blockade and the West Bank checkpoints, settler roads, security wall, and the ugly violence of the settlers.
But, as the saying goes, to save a single life is to save the whole world. And to this boy's parents and grandparents, he is the whole world.
Shalit should be released now.
And the United States can accomplish it.
We should announce that, in exchange for the freedom of Gilad Shalit, we will talk to Hamas. Let Israel do whatever it chooses, but the United States is a sovereign nation and can negotiate with whomever it wants.
Yes, I know that, under Israeli pressure, the West put three conditions in place before we talk to Hamas. It must renounce violence, accept all previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and recognize Israel.
These preconditions are ridiculous because they were designed to prevent negotiations, not facilitate them. Hamas will not recognize Israel or accept previous agreements (essentially the same thing) in advance of negotiations. That is because the recognition of Israel and the acceptance of previous agreements are obviously issues to be discussed in the context of negotiations, not preconditions for them. After all, what else does Hamas have to offer besides acceptance of Israel? Nothing.
The only condition that should be maintained is the continued cessation of violence.
And the freedom of Gilad Shalit.
After all, his captivity is itself an act of violence. And so is Hamas' refusal to allow the Red Cross to visit with him.
The right argues that Hamas will never, ever recognize Israel. But that is not what the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, says. In an interview in May, he was asked by Charlie Rose if he would ever agree to live in peace with Israel. His response is noteworthy:
It must be remembered that half of Palestinians belong to land of '48. If Israel withdraws to the borders of '67 that will not give all Palestinians their land back, but the borders of '67 are considered to be an acceptable solution for a Palestinian state.
Once this is recognized and a Palestinian state under these conditions is created, the Palestinian state will be able to decide the future of relations with Israel. Any decisions made will reflect the opinion of Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine. The Palestinian state will have a referendum, and Hamas will accept and respect the decisions of the Palestinian majority.
In other words, if Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority negotiates an agreement with Israel and the Palestinian people accept it by means of a referendum, Hamas will accept it as well.
Meshal also addresses the issue of conditions:
Dialogue with Hamas does not need preconditions. We see that the US has dialogue with Iran and with Syria without preconditions. Why does dialogue with Hamas have to be based on preconditions? To place preconditions on dialogues with Hamas is unjust and illogical -- conditions can be developed once we are at dialogue and able to develop agreements.
Are Meshal's commitments ironclad? No. But neither is Netanyahu's pledge of support for the two-state solution.
In both cases, though, they warrant negotiations to see what is actually possible. If Meshal is lying, the negotiations end. It's that simple. But why not test him? And free Shalit in the process.
A dramatic change of policy is needed.
No, I don't expect the Netanyahu government to go along with this idea. All Netanyahu cares about is staying in power. That is why I would put the United States in charge. (Like Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas cares infinitely more about what the United States says or does than about the "other side.")
As for our scruples about dealing with the likes of Hamas, I ask if Hamas is any worse than some of the thugs and killers we have partnered with in Iraq? Or those "moderate" Taliban types we are now courting in Afghanistan? Or our friend Qadaffi? I won't even mention all the out-and-out killers (remember the death squads?) we not only talked to in Central and South America during the Reagan years, but armed and treated as our allies, as they slaughtered innocent villagers.
Enough with the hypocrisy.
If President Obama achieves the freedom of Gilad Shalit, the jubilant Israelis celebrating in the street are not going to care that it was achieved by recognizing Hamas. The will simply see what can be achieved by negotiations rather than violence. So will Hamas.
At this point, the name Gilad Shalit is a mere token. The left invokes his name for cover while the right talks tough but rejects doing anything to restore his freedom.
Gilad Shalit should be freed simply because his continued captivity is a monstrous crime. But, after four years of captivity, why not give his suffering meaning by achieving his freedom in a way that promotes an end to this pointless and brutal conflict?
The United States can achieve the freedom of Gilad Shalit now. Why should a scared young kid have to wait until Netanyahu gets around to it?
And we should negotiate with Hamas. Sure, we'd rather negotiate with the Palestinian Authority but, sad to say, they can't deliver the goods. Hamas can.
Bring Shalit home now.