Israel, Netanyahu and The ‘Gilad Factor’

Oliver Duggan

Untitled 136 300x187 Israel, Netanyahu and The Gilad FactorThe main ring road that runs through the city of Jerusalem and past Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residency has, for a little over two years, been home to Noam and Aviva Shalit, the distraught and disheveled parents of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad.

Their protest tent, which sprawls onto the adjacent pavement and hangs dramatically from the railings of Netanyahu’s family home, is therefore an unavoidable landmark for the flocking tourists. Little more than a table, a petition and a handful of pens at its inception in August 2009, it has grown to live up to its status, becoming an impressive if melancholic structure. One that is rarely empty. Crowds are admittedly sparse midweek – when the mass of Jerusalem’s populace go about their lives in the epicentre of a thousand year old conflict -   but on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath, hundreds of families would descend with messages of hope for the childless parents.

But if life is hard outside the gates of Israeli government, it is not much easier within.  Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the right-wing Likud party and premier since 2009, knows at least tacitly the suffering of Noam and Aviva. Plagued by criticism of an inert security agenda and a public that is reacting more and more decisively to economic liberalism, Netanyahu faces, on the one hand, a coalition government crippled by parochialism and nepotism, held together with the spit and sawdust of nominal ministerial portfolios and dominated by hog-tied (pork-barrelled and log-rolled) legislation. On the other, the weight of a polarizing polity tired of regional instability, perpetually unnerved by the feeling of living in rest-bites between conflict and eager for resolution, one way or another.

Like a parent losing their child, Netanyahu has, since the difficult birth of his government, faced the daunting reality that he’s governing a population moving away from his party, a population that voted in a majority for his opposition and is drifting back to the left that lost them.

There is, however, one sure fire way Netanyahu could fix his problem and, by a stroke of good fortune, dismantle the settlement at the foot of his garden; the negotiated return of Gilad Shalit . It was an option that had been open to him since he took office in 2009 – a fact that has frustrated many onlookers, especially this week – but finally, he bit the bullet, called an emergency cabinet meeting and threw his Hail Mary pass.

The forty-member Cabinet met late Wednesday evening to vote, with a significant majority, in favour of the Prime Minister’s brokered agreement to swap Palestinian prisoners with Hamas to secure the return of the 25-year-old soldier, five years after he was kidnapped.

According to the agreement framework presented to the government, Shalit’s return comes at a typically heavy cost (one not dissimilar to the negotiated return of Israeli remains in 2004).

The immediate release of 450 Palestinian prisoners, including 280 with life sentences, was the first of Hamas’ two-step demands. Fifty-five of which are committed members to the Gaza terrorist group who will be released to their homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In addition, 131 Gaza residents, many of whom are Hamas operatives, will be released back to the coastal Strip. Another 203 will be expelled from the West Bank and 40 deported overseas. And that’s just the first wave. In two months time Israel must release a further 550 prisoners of its own choosing (a caveat that probably provides little comfort to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one of only three ministers to oppose the deal).

It’s a high price to pay, but one that Netanyahu would be silly to quibble over because as far as political victories go, there’s rarely one as decisive in Israel. Why? Because for most Israelis – even those who reside in Tel Aviv’s ‘Bubble’, who limit societal participation to VAT and ballot boxes – the Israeli Defence Force is the state. That’s what national service means: Sons, Brothers, Cousins and Fathers didn’t leave school discussing University placements, they leave comparing division assignments. For at least two years in the lifetime of every generation and the development of every family, the IDF becomes the elephant in the room. And after a social consciousness has spent that much time with an elephant, it’s absence would be conspicuous. There is, as a result, a cultish worship of the force, which puts its continuation beyond question and its maintenance at the centre of security rhetoric. It is, to draw an analogy closer to home, similar to the average Britons regard for  the NHS. If you’re a politician, question either at your peril.

There is though, something human about Netanyahu’s Gilad victory. Having loved ones in the military in Britain contextualises war in a way those who don’t can’t access. Political disputation about troop deployment, philosophical debates of just war and social arguments over morality are eternally couched in one simple question: will they come back? For every home in Israel, for at least 24 months (but probably longer), this question eats away at public discourse and creates a community for whom there can only be one answer: just bring them home.

As a result, every politician in Israel knows of at least one principle to which they can appeal when support wains and knesset obscurity looms; the return of national service IDF soldiers. Netanyahu could scarcely have played his hand better. The security threats that follow from the release of a thousand prisoners have yet to be realised, though the relevant Cabinet ministers (and there are about 12) have said they can handle the situation. Either way, at least for now, the Prime Minister no one thought would has at last responded to the banner outside his home, the one that painted Everybody’s Waiting, Everybody’s Anticipating, So where is Galid? on the minds of a nation, with the best possible answer.

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  • Dr.Tom Weinberger

    Irrespective of the opinions expressed in this blog, there are a number of factual errors which call into question the validity of the exercise and the journalistic skills of the blogger.
    1. there is no “ringroad” which runs through the centre of Jerusalem
    2. the Shalit’s tent  does not “hang dramatically from the railings of Netanyahu’s family home” but from the railings of Terra Sancta, built in 1926 and run by the Franciscans as a school.
    3. the building round the corner is the official residence of the Prime Minister of Israel and is no more ” Netatnyahu’s family home” than 10 Downing Street is the Cameron family home.
    4. the Israel cabinet comprises 30 ministers and not 40, far to many, but don’t make it worse than it is.
    5. the recent massive demonstrations against economic hardship and for social justice were instigated and lead by inhabitants of the Tel Aviv “bubble” suggesting that their societal participation is more than just VAT and the ballot box.
    6 army service for men is 3 years and for women 2years.
    All in all a very poor piece, snide cracks about the Shalit family who have lead the 5 year campaign for the release of their son with courage and dignity, uncalled for and disgraceful.

  • Oliver Duggan

    Dr Weinberger, There are no snide cracks at the Shalit family in the above piece. I have nothing but respect for their demonstration, admiration for their conduct and sympathy for their situation. The tent though, does indeed encompass the area around the entrance to the Netanyahu residency, which – as it’s where premiers traditionally reside during their times – can legimately be called a ‘home’. The Israei Cabinet does indeed hold 30 members, but there are also 10 deputy miniesterial portfolios, whuich are included in cabinet meetings. The recent tent proests, while in Tel Aviv, cannot be conflated with the neo-liberal, largely a-political poppulation of the city that also exists. The city is large, and of course encompasses various social groups, I was therefore obviously only referring to the intellegentsia. Given that minimum army service is 2 years the line ‘at least 24 months’ seems entirely accurate. I appreciate your comment, and cannot complain if you disagree with sentiment, but I take issue with the claim the piece was poorly researched or specious.

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