Israel, Netanyahu and The ‘Gilad Factor’
The 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.Tagged in: Benjamin Netanhyahu, gaza, Gilad Shalit, hamas, IDF, israel, Knesset, LIkud, Netanyahu, Palestine, prisoner release, west bank
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