On the morning of October 18 last year, like the rest of Israel I anxiously awaited the return of Gilad Shalit. The deal had been made and the arrangements were set, but we didn’t know what kind of a young man would return. What his health would be like, his psychological state, his social abilities after half a decade in captivity.
I remember thinking while watching him re-enter his house in Mitzpe Hila in the Galilee: What kind of a future awaits him back in his childhood home? I had spent a lot of time talking to Israeli prisoners of war from the past, and judging from their experiences I feared that Shalit’s future could look more than a little bleak. I penned this piece on the subject.
But Shalit has surprised us all. In an indicator of a level of independence few expected to see, he wasn’t with his family to celebrate the anniversary yesterday — he was in the US travelling with friends. He hasn’t exactly got a normal life, but as close as could possibly be expected — his reintegration in to his community and society has been remarkably smooth. He has found a dignified way of being in the public eye — writing on sports for Yedioth Aharonoth — without marketing or taking advantage of his experience. I spoke to his father about the process a few months ago.
So what has made for this smooth return for Shalit’s smooth return? Part of it is just a matter of indescribable personality traits. But there are some clear external factors.
Looking at the results of a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 2 and the Sarid Institute for Research Services, it’s clear that the Israeli public is smiling on Benjamin Netanyahu, now fresh from negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit.
The poll shows that Likud would win 37 seats in the next Knesset, up 10 from its current number. Labor would have 22 seats, up from its current eight (though it did win 13 at the last election, before Ehud Barak split off to form his Independence party, taking five mandates with him).
The two most interesting data points, however, are the plummeting fortunes of Kadima, which would go 17 Knesset members from 28 and become the third party, trailing Labor. How much this has to do with Tzipi Livni’s criticisms of the Shalit deal or her general tepidness as an opposition leader is hard to tell. And then there is Yisrael Beiteinu, which, besides its bluster, in the poll does not budge either way from its current 15 seats.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Netanyahu gets such a boost from what was seen as a widely popular move in freeing Shalit (perhaps the reason for his smiling mug in a picture of the Shalit father-and-on reunion that has now become a brilliant meme).
One might have assumed, however, that Labor would find itself in a stronger position after the summer tent protests and the recent election of a fresh face in its new leader, Shelly Yachimovich. But maybe all this proves is that politics in Israel, like everywhere, are often reactive and emotional. We’ll see what the polls say in a month from now…
I just returned from a few weeks in Israel, and was there during the dramatic denouement of the Gilad Shalit story. The trip reminded me why it’s important for those of us who observe and comment and tear our hair out over Israel to actually experience the country as a place — as opposed to an abstract concept — every once in a while.
The reality is always so much more nuanced and challenging than the neat categories we project onto Israel from over here. The Shalit swap was a perfect example. From what I could tell, nearly the entire country was opposed and supportive of the deal at the same time. You could call this schizophrenia, but the extreme mixed feelings were just a function of Israeli reality. There is the emotional reaction — Gilad is everyone’s son — and the strategic one — releasing so many sworn killers is pure folly. And no one seemed to be bothered that these two reactions jostled together in their heads. They just did. And it made a joke of our attempts here to come to one conclusion about what Israelis actually think.
The other news that shocked me in the wake of the Shalit deal was a poll I saw cited on Israeli television that put 65 percent of Israelis in favor of continuing to negotiate with Hamas over a cease-fire. This number is consistent with a Haaretz poll from three years ago. I imagined going back to the States and explaining this to American Jews on the extreme right, like Rachel Abrams, wife of the neoconservative Elliot Abrams, who recently described Palestinians in a blog post as subhuman, “devils’ spawn” and “unmanned animals” who should be thrown to the sharks. How to break it to her that most Israelis see the logic of negotiating with these enemies?
After seeing, hearing and reading the flood of anguish and outrage that’s followed Israel’s decision to free 1,027 terrorists in return for one captured soldier, you might be astonished to learn that Israelis approve of the deal by a nearly 6-to-1 margin, according to a poll published in the Jerusalem Post October 18. The Dahaf poll showed 79% for the swap and just 14% opposed. The margin among women was 86% to 5%. The same article reported another poll, by the Midgam organization, showing a narrower but still hefty 69%-to-26% approval.
I learned about this from the October 18 edition of the Daily Alert, the news digest emailed to tens of thousands of American Jewish mailboxes every morning from Israel on behalf of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Since the Daily Alert is supposed to be a pretty comprehensive round-up of Israel-related news and analysis, I looked for an article that would explain what it was that Israelis liked about the deal. I couldn’t find one. The closest thing I found was a bit of backhanded praise by Elliott Abrams from the Weekly Standard giving all the reasons why it was a Hamas victory, but then gushing over Israel’s oh-so-Jewish concerns for its children’s lives.
Everything else in today’s Daily Alert was an open or veiled attack on the decision to deal with Hamas, with headlines like “Israel’s Deals With the Devils” (Robert Mnookin, Wall Street Journal) “Why (Almost) Everyone Loses in the Prisoner Swap” (Benny Morris, National Interest), “Turkey’s Acceptance of Terrorists Reveals Hamas Ties” (Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post), and a news piece from Haaretz about Mahmoud Abbas hailing the freed Palestinians as “freedom fighters.” The two previous Daily Alert editions, October 17 and October 14, were even more strident in savaging the Netanyahu government’s decision. And people wonder why American Jews are so much more hawkish than Israelis.
Yes, Virginia, there was a logic behind Israel’s decision, and not merely a soft-headed willingness to throw prudence to the wind in response to a mother’s tears. The Daily Alert must have accidentally overlooked that stuff. Or maybe they wanted to shield us from leftist propaganda. For example, this Jerusalem Post article by former Netanyahu bureau chief Ari Harow.