An editor looking over one of the articles I wrote about the release of Gilad Shalit asked me if I thought Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made a deal with Hamas seeking to boost his popularity. The question is fair, I suppose. After all, Netanyahu, like most politicians, makes many decisions with an eye to political consequences. But the Shalit decision was not about politics. It was about Israels soul as a nation.
The agreement brings to Israelis, and it should provide to the countrys critics, an opportunity to see in the starkest terms some of the sharp differences that characterize the adversaries in this conflict.
The contrast is not just between the visibly-malnourished, translucently-thin Shalit, who was not allowed a single visit from outsiders, not even the Red Cross, in his five years of captivity, compared to the well-fed, healthy-looking Palestinian prisoners, who had spent their time receiving visits from relatives and the Red Cross, exercising, taking online courses, reading books, etc. Their imprisonment has not been a pain-free leisurely activity, but it in no way resembled the hell Shalit endured.
But the differences go much deeper.
The decision to trade one low-ranking Israeli soldier for more than a thousand convicted Palestinians many of them guilty of committing acts of terrorism so horrifying that one wonders how a human being can sink to such depths was not motivated by political or strategic considerations. In fact, most Israelis believe the deal will weaken Israeli security.
The agreement reaffirms, not a day to soon, Israels commitment to its core humanistic values.
In the end, by the simple arithmetic of human survival one could conclude the deal was a mistake. It is a near certainty that some of the Palestinians freed by Israel will kill again. Consider, for example, Musab Hashlemon. He was released in another prisoner exchange in 2004. Two months later, he organized a Hamas suicide attack on passenger buses in the city of Beer-Sheva. Among the 17 killed were students on their way from school, housewives back from grocery shopping, mothers, fathers, grandfathers. The youngest victim was Aviel Atash, 3; the oldest Tamara Dibrashvilli, 70.
The Almagor Terror Victims Association says Palestinian prisoners released just since 2004 have killed 183 Israelis.
But Israelis could not leave Shalit behind to die in a dungeon.
Hashlemon, who was serving 17 life sentences, was received along with all the others as a national hero of the Palestinian cause. He now knows he can murder Israelis and go free. Palestinians have proudly announced they will kidnap more Israelis. And they already tried to kill more of them since Shalit was freed.
There are other reasons to argue this deal was a mistake. But I dont think it was, and neither do 70 percent of Israelis, according to the polls. And they are the ones who will have to live day to day with the consequences.
Not everyone agrees, of course. On the day the agreement was announced, Meir Schijveschuurder, seized with a pain we could never understand, defaced the memorial to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Turns out, one of those freed in the trade, a Palestinian woman, drove a suicide bomber to the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem. Sitting in the restaurant that terrible day, and killed in the blast, were both of Meirs parents, along with three of his siblings, ages 2, 4 and 14. When the woman was told about the children who died in the attack, she reportedly smiled.
The group released on Tuesday included people involved in killing 599 Israelis. At least one of them, Abdel Aziz Salehi, helped a mob lynch two Israelis who had lost their way in the West Bank, killing and dismembering them with their bare hands at a Ramallah police station. He then flashed his blood-stained hands to a cheering crowd.
Israel has been accused of many terrible crimes by its critics, who like to draw easy parallels between the two sides.
This is an opportunity for Israels critics to test their own moral foundation.
What Israel does is fair game for review. The country has made mistakes and has committed excesses. But never on a scale that has defied morality the way its enemies repeatedly do.
One cannot overlook that Hamas seeks Israels destruction. And that even Mahmoud Abbas, the more moderate leader of the internationally-feted Palestinian Authority, embraced the terrorists released by Israel as freedom fighters and holy warriors, giving a tacit seal of approval to their methods.
Shalits freedom has filled Israelis with a strange mix of anguish and joy. But it has also given a dose of moral clarity to a conflict.