By Ethan Bronner, www.NYTimes.com
JERUSALEM — When Prof. Gadi Wolfsfeld asks his political science students at Hebrew University if Israel really should free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including organizers of terrorist attacks, for one seized soldier, as the Israeli government is currently contemplating, he faces a stony silence.
“People feel extremely uncomfortable raising it,” he said. “It’s so politically incorrect that you run the risk of being labeled a monster. We all feel like we know this boy and we know his family.”
The negotiations for the release of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, seized more than three years ago in a raid into southern Israel by Hamas and other militant groups, are entering a crucial stage through German and Egyptian mediation. While the details of the talks are hidden here behind military censorship, the outlines are widely known.
Last week, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, told reporters there was still no deal on a prisoner exchange, saying that the two sides had “stopped at the details concerning the numbers and nature of people to be released,” according to Reuters.
The negotiations have raised surprisingly little controversy given the risks of future seizures of Israelis and attacks at the hands of those freed and the equally serious risk of raising the fortunes of Hamas. Although Israel has spent decades trying to build a reputation as a tough self-sacrificing society that spurns negotiations with terrorists, polls show a strong majority in favor of the trade.
“To us it seems reasonable although it is totally not,” said Tal Goren, who produced and directed a documentary on the Shalit family called “Family in Captivity.” “It is emotional, not logical.”
But sociologists, politicians and religious scholars say that rescuing captives has deep Jewish and Israeli roots, and that the mix of familial intimacy here, a relentless and well conceived campaign by the family and a media culture in overdrive has placed Sergeant Shalit, a shy, bookish 23-year-old, at the heart of nearly every Israeli Jew.
“When I walk the street, people come up to me and say, ‘Bring back Shalit,’ ” Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said in an interview. “In this country, it is very difficult to differentiate between the personal and the political.”
Levi Weiman-Kelman, an American-born rabbi who has been here for 30 years and presides over Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem, said the focus could be traced back to Genesis 14, when Abraham’s nephew Lot was captured in war and the biblical patriarch gathered up a huge posse to rescue him.
“The whole Jewish obsession of ‘pidyon shvuyim,’ rescuing captives, is based on that,” he said. “In the Middle Ages, some Jewish communities went bankrupt when faced with piracy and the need to rescue people.”
Alon Liel, who spent 30 years as an Israeli diplomat, including as director-general of the Foreign Ministry and now lectures in international relations, said he knew of no other country whose foreign ministry included a division for rescuing its citizens facing difficulties abroad.
“We have a division for it and a budget for it,” he said. “It is not unusual for a senior diplomat to go 300 or 400 miles to a village where an Israeli has gotten lost or kidnapped or injured. A lot of other nations refer you to your insurance company.”
Lopsided prisoner exchanges have occurred from the early days of the state he said, including hundreds for half a dozen after the 1956 Sinai War and, most famously, in 1985 when Israel handed over 1,150 security prisoners to a Palestinian guerrilla group in exchange for three Israelis captured in the Lebanon war three years earlier.
That latter deal was criticized when it became clear that those released had formed much of the command structure of the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s. Today, while dissent over the impending deal remains muted, those who have expressed their concern have generally focused on such future risks.
“There will be a massive release of all the greatest murderers in the last and present century,” lamented Rami Igra, former director of the Prisoner of War department of the Mossad intelligence agency, in an opinion article in the conservative newspaper Israel Hayom. “This is shameless and bottomless surrender to Hamas’s demands. It’s true that all of us, as citizens of the State of Israel, have an obligation to each other and particularly to the soldiers we sent into battle, but this obligation must have a rational basis and should not lead to suicide.”
But others say that the risk from those expected to be released is exaggerated for two reasons. First, the combination of Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank is keeping a lid on violence. And second, the prisoners are part of a political organization with which Israel is trying to make peace.
“These people, although they are murderers, do it for a political cause and even if they don’t represent a country they are being sent by a military organization that is our rival and one day will make peace with us,” Mr. Liel, the former diplomat, said. “They are not regular criminals. We know that sooner or later when we have a peace deal they will be released.”
The focus on Sergeant Shalit also reveals the way in which the army is an intimate part of the vast majority of households here. Yair Lapid, a columnist for Yediot Aharonot and a television news host, said that during the 2006 Hezbollah war, he had a conversation with the then military chief of staff, Dan Halutz.
“When a Hezbollah missile killed a grandmother, no one said anything, saying it was the cost of war,” Mr. Lapid remembered saying to Mr. Halutz. “But when the first soldiers started to die, people said this has to end. I said this is weird. He said, a citizen is somebody we don’t know but a soldier is somebody we all have at home.”
Still, Mr. Lapid said, the planned deal over Sergeant Shalit was a dangerous and bad idea. A government committee led by a retired Supreme Court justice is expected to recommend that a law be passed after this trade barring such lopsided arrangements in the future.
Rabbi Weiman-Kelman of Jerusalem said that the controversy over Sergeant Shalit was precisely what made life so different in Israel from his native United States and to him so appealing.
“There is zero distance between the Shalit family and the rest of the country,” he said. “It is very, very personal. That is part of the thrill of living here, although it is also suffocating and overwhelming. For those of us who are junkies for meaning, living here is pure heroin.”