Even though 19-year-old Gilad Shalit, kidnapped two weeks ago by Hamas from inside Israel, has been in the thoughts and prayers of ordinary Israelis, his abduction and even the Gaza incursion were becoming less and less a topic of conversation in restaurants and coffee houses. With the kidnappings Wednesday morning of two soldiers by Hezbollah near the Lebanese border, though, that's changed.
Israeli talk radio shows were abuzz with upset callers wondering how it was possible that two more young Israelis could be kidnapped—something that didn’t happen before the Gaza disengagement. Between the kidnappings and the Qassam rockets being fired from Gaza into Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon, the Israeli public is focusing intensely on politics, largely for the first time since the election in March.
The reason ordinary, otherwise apolitical Israelis supported Gaza disengagement last year had nothing to do with Oslo-era delusions that peace was possible. Israelis simply want an end to the prolonged “negotiations” which never really lead anywhere. Unilateral disengagement was sold and supported on the idea that there was no partner with whom to negotiate, so Israel would just pull out to end the headache once and for all. It offered at least the hint of an opportunity for “normalcy.”
Now the body politic appears poised to swing in the other direction, meaning no more appetite for unilateral concessions. Which, were that to happen, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would find the central—perhaps only—platform from his campaign left in tatters. Shortly after Olmert dropped “acting” from his title, the new political buzzword became “convergence,” which was in essence a proposed disengagement from most of the West Bank. As a personal friend of Olmert’s conceded to me today, “That’s dead for now, at least for this term.”
Given his election as a quasi-dove, Olmert needs to burnish his security credentials. When a prominent member of his cabinet suggested that an “exchange” of Palestinian “militants” for Shalit was possible, Olmert rebuked him sharply. Then in his press conference on Monday, he used “le’olam,” which is a very strong Hebrew expression for “never,” to state in what seemed to be no uncertain terms that negotiating with terrorists was not an option.
Even if Olmert was covertly planning to have some kind of exchange occur—with, say, prisoners being released in the future as “an act of good faith” months after Shalit’s safe release—it is not clear how he could do any such thing now. Hezbollah obviously sensed weakness, believing it was strategically smart to kill three IDF soldiers and kidnap the other two.
Several political consultants have suggested to me today that this is the most difficult period for Israel in a long time because Olmert is now facing a two-front war with both Hamas and Hezbollah. They could be right about this being a crucial juncture, but because it is actually one common enemy, not two distinct ones. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are funded by Iran, leaders for both receive sanctuary in Syria, and both have a common goal: elimination of the Jews and establishment of an Islamic state.
Beneath the renewed swirl of political discussion and armchair analysis is the harsh reality that three young children are being held hostage. In a country that prides itself on being able to persevere and continue with everyday life, today’s news was a cutting reminder that this tiny nation never really will achieve the “normalcy” it so desperately desires.