By Yaakov Katz
Gilad Shalit has returned home and Israel has once again proved that it is different from the rest of the countries that surround it in the Middle East.
On the one hand, there is no question that for Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel’s decision to release 1,027 convicted terrorists will motivate them to try and kidnap more Israeli soldiers in the future. Some in Israel are calling this move national suicide.
The fact that 450 of the terrorists are responsible for the deaths – directly and indirectly – of over 500 Israelis, just adds to the encouragement.
On the other hand, the exchange of so many prisoners for just one Israeli soldier can also be hailed as the exact difference between Israel and its enemies.
While its enemies praise death, Israel sanctifies life, and for that reason it is willing to pay such a heavy price to retrieve one Israeli soldier and bring him home to his family after more than five years in captivity.
Tomorrow, the day after Schalit has been released, will be possibly the most difficult.
While it will take the media some time to back off from the story – Schalit will likely be hounded by photographers wherever he goes – the focus will shift, either back to the social protests, that until recently were at the top of the papers, or to the next crisis in waiting.
For the IDF this will also be a time of introspection.
On the one hand, there is more than a measure of truth to the claim that by releasing Schalit, Israel sends a message throughout its military and to all of its soldiers that, as a country, it does not leave a soldier behind.
On the other hand, if tomorrow, soldiers from the Golani Brigade, or any other random unit, are sent to arrest a Palestinian terror suspect in Gaza or the West Bank they will likely wonder what the point is of risking their lives if the same man they arrest could be released in the next prisoner swap.
There is also the question of Israeli-government policy. What will it do the next time a soldier is kidnapped?
When Schalit was first abducted by Hamas in June, 2006, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert announced that Israel would not negotiate his release. This quickly changed when, as prime minister, Olmert successfully negotiated one prisoner swap with Hezbollah for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and started the negotiations with Hamas that are to culminate in Schalit’s release on Tuesday.
The Winograd Commission, which investigated the failures of the Second Lebanon War, called on the government to set a clear policy for how it will deal with future kidnappings.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak then appointed former Supreme Court justice Meir Shamgar to issue recommendations, which have not yet been made.
Israel could potentially declare that from now on, there will be no more negotiations. The problem is that this is easier said than done, and the government will have difficulty explaining to the family of the next soldier why it is not willing to negotiate the release of their son.
There is no easy answer, but with Israeli intelligence warning of increased motivation among terrorist groups to kidnap soldiers, a clear policy is needed.