Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pain and Politics

“In Israel there’s no such thing as international relations, only local politics,” the former U.S. Sec. State Henry Kissinger reportedly said.

In the case of 31-year old Ehud Goldwasser and 26-year old Eldad Regev, the quip becomes especially poignant.

Analysts are scratching their heads wondering at the exchange. Granted, pundits admit, Israel doesn’t leave its dead and wounded on the battlefield. All efforts are made to bring them home.

Witness the Gilad Shalit kidnapping. Two years after he was snatched from his army post on the Gaza border, he is still in captivity, somewhere, and alive, by all indications.

Goldwasser and Regev were snatched during a well-orchestrated kidnapping on the Lebanese/Israeli border. Another jeep had been ambushed, and Eldad and Udi jumped into their armed army Hummer and crossed into S. Lebanon to help out. Their kidnappers were waiting for them. Anyone who knows anything about Hezbollah knows they’re very sophisticated when it comes to an ambush.

U.N. troops were nearby, but couldn’t or didn’t help. By the time other Israeli units were on the scene Goldwasser and Regev were gone. Their kidnapping resulted in Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s hasty invasion of Lebanon, to free these two reserve soldiers, bring them back home, and show the Arab world this new Prime Minister wasn’t a pushover.

From the outset Hezbollah leader Shiek Nasrallah had aimed at the release of one of Lebanon’s top terrorists: Samir Kuntar in jail in Israel. Kuntar had become a symbol of the ‘resistance’ to Israel. He was involved in a 1979 raid on the coastal village of Nahariya, in which a number of people were killed, including an infant. Kuntar murdered a policeman who tried to stop him, then bludgeoned an infant to death with his rifle butt.

The infant’s mother hid in the closet of her apartment with her young daughter when the terrorists rampaged through the building. She kept the child quiet by holding her close. When the danger had passed it turned out the child had suffocated. The poor woman lost two children because of Samir Kuntar.

Nasrallah has been boasting for years that he’d secure the release of Kuntar. Nasrallah was out for Kuntar in exchange for information on Ron Arad, the Israeli pilot lost during the 1981 War in Lebanon. One observer asked why a bloodthirsty killer like Kuntar became an icon for a resistance group, but then answered that civilized people are looking at the conflict from the side of Western democracy and polite civilization.

What Nasrallah showed, according to Arab analysts, is that he’d coolly kept the corpses of the two soldiers for two years, negotiating their release in exchange for a list of Hezbollah prisoners, including Kuntar, who by the way was in jail long before Hezbollah was even formed. Because of this, and other actions, Nazrallah, according to the New York Times, is now the most admired Arab leader in the world.

College campuses took up the cause of the two missing soldiers. A public relations campaign was mounted, with Ehud Goldwasser’s mother Miki making frequent media appearances, pressuring the government to arrange for her son’s freedom. Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud’s wife, was also part of the PR campaign. No one can blame these families for trying to get their men home. Today, Olmert’s people say the PR pressure resulted in a bad deal. Regev and Goldwasser proved better negotiating chips than Ron Arad.

Forensic evidence gathered at the checkpoint where the bodies were exchanged points to the conclusion that both men died in the kidnapping. So, even had Israel won the war all that would have been accomplished was the return of their bodies. The critics, of course, ask, ‘what was the war all about if all we got back were bodies? And paid the price of another 160 dead soldiers in the process?”

Some analysts now point to the current, very painful, exchange of Arab prisoners for the corpses of the two reserve solders. According to press reports aired during the last few weeks, Samir Kuntar reportedly has made peace with his past. An Israeli media report recently said he regretted what he’d done nearly thirty-years ago. Socially active Israelis thought perhaps Kuntar had been in jail long enough, especially if he was repentant. He’d paid his debt to society.

Many back-alley reports posited over the last six-months that both Goldwasser and Regev were deceased. Still the negotiations continued. Better to have the bodies home, the case closed, than another Ron Arad. Even today bumper stickers appear on cars with “Free Ron Arad” printed on them.

But was that the main reason for the exchange? Political analysts point to the tremendous pressure Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert is under. He is being investigated for a number of crimes. His political future is not uncertain, the experts say, it is, baring any miracles, essentially over.

So in keeping with the Henry Kissinger adage, Olmert, according to some analysts, wants to close the chapter that began with the kidnapping, continued on with the War in Lebanon II, and end it with the return of the two soldiers whose kidnapping started the war in the first place. Olmert, these analysts say, can now step down from office having come back to where he started. Except, of course, for Gilad Shalit, still held captive in Gaza.

An Israeli professor speculated on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet this morning that the problem was Israel’s soft heart. The professor, a woman, said that Israel had to begin playing from Hezbollah’s ruthless rules.

The professor also criticized Israel’s delicate approach to sensibilities of the viewing public. She claimed that the army and police were in possession of video clips and stills of the dead terrorists, naked, blown apart, immodestly presented. These photographs would be an embarrassment to the terrorist’s families. And might just prevent other terrorists from doing the same thing, since they’d bring shame to their parents and relatives.

Another fact she claims would be helpful is making it plain to the world that almost all the female terrorists commit suicide because of a family scandal. These women have been found not to be virgins, and advised by their Moslem religious leaders, that a way out of shame was becoming a Shahid, a martyr. Only then could these women find their way into paradise.

According to the professor, by publicizing the fact of these women’s shame they’d no longer be ‘martyrs’ but disgraced women, seeking some desperate solution to their embarrassment. But of course, the professor concludes, Israel doesn’t play by those crude rules. It is simply not done. Israeli journalistic ethics prevent such things. But should they? The question arises, is this a war or a game of cricket?

Israeli philosophers talk about Jews setting a higher standard on the playing field. Not lowering themselves to the standards employed by Hezbollah, Hamas and Al Queda, but rather seeking nicer, more elegant ways, to win. Ways that do not betray the Jewish ethics that are embodied in the texts, the bible, the philosophy.

Jews, these philosophers point out, have been persecuted and hounded for centuries that stretch into millennia, and now that the Jews have their own state, they are honor bound to behave better than those who persecuted them throughout history. This burden has shackled Israel, but at the same time, it is a source of pride. Sure, one observer said, Israel could have taken possession of Regev and Goldwasser’s bodies, and then thumbed their noses at Nasrallah, not turned over anyone. Let him fume. Let him start firing his 40,000 rockets. Let the war begin.

But Israel didn’t do that. Israel stuck to her word. No double-cross. Kuntar was released, sent across the border with his other buddies. Israel was left with bones and body parts.

Granted, in this world of ghosts and shadows, who knows how many men in that group have been turned into double agents? But the front pages of the International Herald Tribune, the Haaretz newspaper showed pictures of Kuntar, in a Hezbollah army uniform, standing at Nasrallah’s right hand. Another released terrorist also in uniform was at Nasrallah’s left hand.

One of the pictures of Kuntar was chosen for a purpose. He had a mad grin on his face, his eyes were gleaming, his arm was outstretched, fingers forward, as if in a Nazi salute, and to top it off he had a neat little black mustache on his upper lip. If he has recanted his evil ways, he sure didn’t look it this morning. And if he hasn’t, then his release may come back to haunt Israel for years to come.