Israel's failure to return Gilad Schalit by other means will go down in history as one of the worst intelligence and military failures in the country's history.
We flew to Entebbe and returned with hundreds of hostages. We taught the world that terror isn't to be bargained with or catered to, that terror is to be fought. Despite its vaunted intelligence services, advanced technologies and enormous, well-trained and experienced army, Israel was unable to locate a single soldier being held in a narrow, controlled strip of enemy territory just a few miles away.
Over the course of five years, this country has been unable to create leverage or drum up the necessary international support, and in the end was forced to fold to bring Gilad Schalit home. In the final analysis, this will be understood to be one of the worst intelligence and military failures in the country's history.
Yitzhak Mordechai, the former defense minister and OC of the southern, central and northern commands, sums up the current situation between Israel and Hamas with the following parable.
Someone breaks into a couple's home. He draws a circle in the middle of the living room and orders the man not to step out of it. Then he takes the man's wife and rapes her on the couch, right before his eyes, and leaves. The man's friends later ask him, "how could you have let that happen?" The man replies, "What are you talking about, I stepped out of the circle twice and he didn't even notice."
According to Mordechai, this is what has happened between us and Hamas in Gaza. They raped us in our own living room and ever since we've been reveling in the glory of our negotiating achievements. What difference does it make, Mordechai says, if we release the equivalent of 290 life sentences or 790? The principle remains the same.
If Mordechai, a moderate and careful minister of defense, the most sane and steadying factor in Netanyahu's first government, thinks - and says - this, what will Avigdor Lieberman say?
Well, this is what he told me the day before yesterday: "Terror cannot be negotiated with. Period. If they know that the only way you are going to be negotiating [with] them is through the barrel of an M-16 or [from] an F-16, things will look different. If they knew that in this type of scenario no one would be left alive - no one - not Haniyeh, not Ja'abri, not nothing, that Israel would slay each and every one of them, whatever the price, then everything would look different.
"We are dismantling everything that we built over the course of many years. After all, the world no longer negotiates with terror, not the Americans, not the Russians, not even the Europeans. Only us. In the case of Schalit, we should have launched a rescue operation, come what may, with whatever we had, because that is how you negotiate with terror."
I asked Lieberman how it was that aside from him only two ministers had voted against the deal. Lieberman, who was pleasantly surprised by Yaalon's vote, did not hesitate.
"It's human nature. With all the media and the public and the commentators and the public campaign, in these kinds of instances everyone wants to be good and beautiful and nice. No one can or wants to go against the flow. It's natural. On the other hand, it's a continuation of the trend that the Arab world has been seeing from us. The message it sends to them is one of a general slackening on our part, a lack of determination, an absence of good judgment."
Why a slackening, I asked him. People contend that, on the contrary, the fact that an entire nation has thrown itself into the campaign to return a single soldier shows how strong our societal links remain, and that those ties are what separate us from them. Lieberman chuckled.
"Just the opposite. That's the lowest form of populism. I have no doubt that the Arabs smell an internal disintegration in Israel."
I asked him about the Arab Spring. Similar signs have been cropping up there too. All of a sudden people seem to want to live differently, they want democracy, they want equality... but again Lieberman chuckled.
"Arab spring? It's winter. In the end everyone will see where this is heading. Look at the commander of the rebel forces in Libya. Who is he? A former assistant to Osama Bin Laden, incarcerated by the Americans in Afghanistan and released. Now he is liberating Libya."
THE PROBLEM with Lieberman's theory is that we've already tried it. Let's return to Mordechai for a moment. When terrorists seized the number 300 bus 27 years ago, the rescue operation ended with two dead terrorists and two live ones who were taken into custody and assassinated by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officers, their skulls bashed in. (The Shin Bet subsequently tried, nearly successfully, to pin the killings on Mordechai.)
How naive we were back then. Before the first intifada, when Gaza was completely under our control, Hamas was still in its infancy, Israel always ensured that terror attacks ended with either the capture or the killing of the terrorists, wherever they were. But what did that get us? Are we better off today? Hardly.
What, then, is the solution?
Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, who told me immediately after the Schalit deal was made public that, "all you [Israel] understand is force," is right. But that's true of the other side, too. There's no lack of examples. The Second Lebanon War silenced Hizbullah; Operation Cast Lead brought a semblance of order to the south. The problem is that someone on our side got confused.
On the one hand, we really do only understand force. On the other hand, we have a problem using it, and when we do, we're quick to blink. What's more, we don't know how to hold our own, to stand firm, to refuse to negotiate with terror, especially in kidnapping situations. That is why Gilad Schalit will not, most regrettably, be our last captive. And that's a pity.
Because Israel had an opportunity to make a sea change. We had the chance and we blew it.
Mordechai insists: "Gilad was held two kilometers away. It's unacceptable that the great IDF could not provide intelligence. That the Shin Bet was unsuccessful. That over the course of Cast Lead they couldn't bring the goods or at least a respectable quantity of senior Hamas officials as prisoners and bargaining chips to be used as leverage against Hamas."
Mordechai is right. This is one of the more worrying failures that we've known.
It must be said, though, to the credit of those responsible, that they haven't tried to avoid taking responsibility.
Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin gave a full-throated admission of his failure upon retirement. Former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who inherited the Schalit case from his predecessor Dan Halutz, publicly admitted after his retirement that Israel didn't know where Schalit was being held (a statement that drew its share of harsh criticism).
But the most bitter disappointment, the most infuriating of all, came during Operation Cast Lead, in the twilight of the Olmert government.
Prime minister Olmert wanted to go all the way. He really did. And even if he didn't, he wanted Hamas to think he did. To believe that the IDF was gunning for its head, that it intended to capture all of Gaza and topple the leadership. That, he believed, might alter the terms of Schalit's release; in the end, Ja'abri and company's only true interest is to remain alive.
What happened to Olmert's plan? His minister of defense, Ehud Barak, sat down with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner on the second or third day of the operation, before the launching of the ground assault, and released the stupefying declaration that Israel was considering a 48-hour halt in the operation for the purpose of creating a "humanitarian corridor."
Barak went a step further, contending that his statement was backed by chief of staff Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Diskin. Olmert, fuming, immediately called Ashkenazi, who explained that he had no idea what Barak was talking about. Diskin? The same.
In the end, the IDF's Spokesperson's office was forced to issue an unprecedented statement from the chief of staff saying that the IDF was in fact not considering a cease-fire for the creation of a "humanitarian corridor." In other words, the whole thing had been cooked up in the feverish mind of the defense minister. But the damage had already been done.
Throughout the mission, which extended for three more weeks, Olmert had to fight Barak for each additional step taken in the field. By then, Ashkenazi also wanted to wrap it up and pull the troops out of Gaza, and Olmert capitulated.
In retrospect, of course, this was a missed opportunity. After the operation, Ashkenazi admitted that, "Gaza was wobbling. The rumble of the tank engines could be heard in the center of the city. It was clear that one more push and Gaza would fall."
Why, then, didn't they bring it down? Throughout the course of the operation, Hamas fighters, almost universally, avoided engaging the IDF in combat, and with good reason. Hamas still lacks the ability to battle the IDF in a true confrontation, face to face (although if things continue on the present course that may soon change).
They also knew that although Olmert had learned his lesson from the previous war and had not declared Schalit's liberation one of the main goals of the operation, he certainly considered it to be so, which was why they took such pains to avoid capture, to simply disengage. And in this they were successful. Mostly on account of the defense minister's defeatist attitude.
According to the intelligence available at the time, Gilad Schalit was being held in or around Rafah. Olmert suggested sending a brigade into the city. Shake the tree and see what comes tumbling down, he figured. That proposal was met with resistance.
Operation Cast Lead ended with a tactical victory (the attainment of a measure of deterrence) and a strategic disaster. Schalit, the most valuable asset Hamas has ever held, remained in the hands of his captors. Israel continued to squirm until this week, when it finally gave up.
Five minutes after the surrender, at the close of the cabinet meeting, I saw Ehud Barak, equipped with a battery of advisers and security personnel, plow a path through the masses and the chaos, determinedly and steadfastly, until he reached the Schalit family's protest tent. He strove to be the first politician to have his picture taken with that (noble and beautiful) family. I saw it, and it made me ill.
THE DEAL that Netanyahu brought before his cabinet was slightly better than the previous ones. In the details, not the essence. On several matters Hamas showed some flexibility. Several of their leaders would remain behind bars. At the end of the day, though, the principle remains unchanged. Hundreds of murderers are going home and one Israeli soldier is being let out of a basement and into the arms of his family.
Schalit was held for an additional two-and-a-half years in a Hamas prison in order to keep a few more mass murderers behind bars. This is a sort of achievement for Netanyahu.
In a related matter, the word from the Shin Bet is that it was the pressure exerted on Hamas prisoners in Israel, the cancellation of some of their most preposterous privileges, that got the job done. I heard with my own ears a high-ranking Shin Bet officer say that the pressure exerted on Hamas prisoners in Israel created significant leverage vis-à-vis their leadership in Damascus and Gaza.
"They were under pressure, too. For five-and-a-half years they have been under terrific stress," the senior Shin Bet officer said. "They too have been swinging between hope and despair, and when this matter of worsening the conditions of their incarceration arose, it created significant leverage."
I heard him say it and I could still hardly believe it. For years I've been advocating such a move. At first virtually alone. Then others joined. People who know, who understand, who've been there, all told me how intensively sensitive Palestinian society is to the matter of prisoners, their conditions, their fate.
Only several weeks ago, after a slew of Ma'ariv articles, did Netanyahu decide to shut down the summer camp. The new commissioner of Israel's prison system, Lt.-Gen. Aharon Franco, issued new directives. He was efficient and steadfast. The prisoners retained most of their privileges. Only some were retracted. It isn't easy changing the terms of their incarceration now, after years of unwavering neglect.
And yet the minor changes, instituted bit by bit, triggered a decisive, shocking chain of events that, according to the Shin Bet, created the necessary leverage. I asked myself what would have happened if, five years ago, someone would have shut the summer camp down completely, overnight. Not slowly, not gently, but in one swift gesture.
Would the prisoners have risen up in revolt? Perhaps. Would some of them have been killed? Perhaps. That would merely have played in our favor; we wouldn't have been forced to release them later on. How would this have affected Hamas? The deal? Too bad no one thought to explore this option in real time.
That is how we got to where we are. To the current deal, which, from a national perspective is a moral and, for Netanyahu, perhaps a tactical victory.
But it is a strategic defeat of the first order, a harsh blow to our national security. Once again, for the umpteenth time, it has been proven that, from the Palestinians' perspective, Hamas' path is the proper one.
Why should the Palestinians follow the moderate path of Mahmoud Abbas, who opposes terror attacks, when the only ones who bring the goods are the murderers of Hamas? Just as it was when we fled from Lebanon and pulled out unilaterally, perilously, from Gaza. We, with our own hands, have been anointing the extremists among them.
Why? Because we refuse to negotiate with their moderates.
We are big heroes when facing the moderates, but we bow before their extremists. It's a fact.
I am not convinced that it wasn't Abbas's offensive at the UN that induced Netanyahu to offer Hamas this sweet deal. Abbas can go blow. Back in his day that is exactly what Yitzhak Shamir did. He authorized the founding of Hamas, allowed the organization to open up several branches back when it was still in its early stages, just to spite the PLO. What great geniuses we are.
ON TUESDAY, the historic cabinet meeting was punctuated by a certain smugness. You could see it on the faces of Netanyahu's men, the national team of spin doctors that has been thriving under his leadership. The following is a troubling, even aggravating, account that I heard from several of the people present at the meeting.
A member of Bibi's team, beaming like a cat that had just polished off a bowl of cream, pranced around saying, "Medical residents, medical residents... remind me, they're some kind of doctors, aren't they?"
Another one, even funnier that his colleague (only with a kippa), added, Justice, justice... remind me, what's this social justice?"
A whopping achievement indeed.
When the leader of the Shas Party, Eli Yishai, came back to the cabinet meeting after escorting Noam Schalit to a meeting with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, some of Netanyahu's men turned to him and asked, "So, did you consult with Daphne Lief, too?"
Hinting oh-so-delicately at the meeting Yishai had conducted with Lief after opposing the Trajtenberg report, a position that brought her to proclaim, "Eli Yishai showed himself to be a real man."
Ariel Atias (in a rather rare display) came to Yishai's aid and said, "Now we're even. You hit us, we hit you."
Netanyahu's people will learn the hard way just how quickly these flickers of fame fade. All they need to do is ask Barack Obama. He didn't release one thousand murderers for one hostage (the Americans don't negotiate for the freeing of hostages, it's against the law there), he assassinated the mass murderer, the great satan himself, Osama Bin Laden, in a spectacular raid. The kind we once conducted.
And his fame lasted all of two weeks. These days he's on the ropes, bleeding, waiting patiently for any sane Republican to come along and take him out of his misery. (That may not happen. There is a serious shortage of sane Republicans).
Which is to say that the jocular and celebratory mood in the prime minister's office is a bit premature.
What brought Netanyahu to the point where he was willing to accept this deal?
Despite the doctrine that he invented, despite everything he wrote in A Place Among the Nations, despite his writings all across the board, despite his own prophecies, which were fulfilled, about capitulation to terror breeding only more terror - he consented. Why?
It isn't entirely clear. History will tell.
What's certain is that he warmed to the deal just as the social protests burst forth. We must not forget that Schalit was mentioned in name and in image during those protests. And that the crowds in the squares are precisely those who are willing to give anything and everything for Schalit. Personally, I have no doubt that this matter, which preyed on Netanyahu's mind, played a role in his warming to the deal.
On the other hand, the time had come for a decision. He displayed leadership, he took a risk, he was discreet and he managed to push the decision through the cabinet with an impressive majority. For Netanyahu, this is an accomplishment. For the country? I doubt it.