Thursday, July 19, 2007

Confidence Games

Israel's decision to release 250 Fatah prisoners as a confidence building measure demonstrates that Ehud Olmert's government lacks not only a vision for the future, but also a firm grasp of the present.

Faced with a changing reality, Mr. Olmert has chosen to continue to deal with the Palestinians by employing methods that have proven futile in the past. What makes this strategy particularly dangerous is that it reflects Olmert's incapacity to recognize the significance of regional changes, and his inability to initiate the kind of policy that is required to confront the challenges that face Israel and the West in combating terrorism.

The release of Palestinian prisoners as a confidence building measure predates the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo peace process. Its logic often goes unquestioned, and its true effects are rarely acknowledged. But it is no secret that immediately prior to such releases, judges clear their dockets, as defendants plead guilty in the midst of their trials so that their names can be added to the lists of candidates for release. More than one accused terrorist has told a prosecuting attorney that he is foregoing a trial because he knows that his name will be on the next list, or that he doesn't care what his sentence may be, since he knows he will not serve it out.

The confidence that is built by prisoner releases is that of the perpetrators of terrorism. They are confident in their belief that they will not be held fully accountable for their crimes.

The logic of deterrence argues that releasing imprisoned terrorists is counterproductive. It returns terrorists to the ranks of their organizations and makes recruitment of new operatives easier. If it increases confidence in the Palestinian leadership, it is only the confidence that it can continue the struggle against Israel. It does not give the Palestinian leadership the confidence to make the political choices and concessions that would lead to a negotiated settlement and an independent Palestinian state living peacefully side-by-side with Israel.

The confidence of terrorists in their early release is, of course, bolstered by the knowledge that Israel will negotiate a "prisoner exchange" to release captured Israeli soldiers. This has led both Hezbollah and Hamas to declare kidnapping of Israeli soldiers to be an integral part of their strategy. That such declarations have not stopped Israel from negotiating with the kidnappers is itself surprising. More surprising is that even after the Second Lebanon War, the Hamas overthrow of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, and Iran's unrelenting quest for nuclear weapons, Israeli and Western leaders continue to believe that "confidence building measures," releasing terrorists, territorial compromise, troop withdrawals and other "incentives" will purchase peace.

In negotiating with totalitarian regimes and in seeking to combat terrorism, Israel and the West need not prove that they are trustworthy or well meaning. Nor must they build up the self-image of those who rule by personality cult or who believe that God has appointed them or commanded them to pursue holy war. On the contrary, as a precondition to any concessions, it is the terrorist and totalitarian regimes that should be expected to show that they are reliable, that they have abandoned murder as a political strategy, and that they intend to join the family of nations and abide by the norms of the international community.

The case of Gilad Shalit is telling in this regard.

A year ago, Shalit was kidnapped by the Hamas. The reigning logic was that, ultimately, the only way to achieve Shalit's release would be to pay the kidnappers' ransom demands. But despite the best efforts of Israeli, Arab and European mediators and negotiators, Shalit was not released. Since then, the Hamas has usurped power. Shalit is no longer being held captive by a renegade group of gunmen but rather by the self-declared government of Gaza. In continuing to hold Shalit hostage, that government is in violation of international law, and every day that passes without Shalit's unconditional release represents a continued refusal to comply.

If the Hamas government of Gaza wishes to receive humanitarian aid, if it wishes to conduct negotiations, if it wishes to be acknowledged for any purpose by the community of nations, one would think that, first and foremost, Israel and the West would require that it minimally comply with the law of nations. The logic of the new political reality in Gaza would argue that it is Hamas that must pay the price of Shalit's kidnapping and its violation of international law. In continuing to negotiate for Shalit's release, while supplying Gaza with electricity, water, medical supplies and food, the Olmert government daily demonstrates that it has yet to realize that things have changed. Confidence building is required. And it is required of the Hamas.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Olmert and his government seem not to have considered that, having fully withdrawn from Lebanon, Israel can now expect Lebanon to make confidence-building gestures to show that the Lebanese government is in charge and can be trusted, and to allay Israel's fears that Hezbollah may again seize control of southern Lebanon and resume its rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Israel can reasonably expect that, in accordance with the Security Council's resolution, Lebanon will release Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were kidnapped by Hezbollah. In the current situation, it is the Lebanese government that should be negotiating with Hassan Nassralah's parliamentary representatives for the release of Israeli hostages. Israel should not be considering paying ransom to release its soldiers from the clutches of an independent member state of the United Nations that refuses to comply with international law. If Lebanon wishes to be taken seriously, it should be making confidence-building gestures towards Israel and toward the Western countries that it has turned to for aid.

It can also safely be assumed that the Olmert government will never realize that the response to the threats of an increasingly bellicose Syria should not be a repeated expression of readiness to relinquish the Golan Heights as the preordained price that Israel must pay for peace. Rather, Syria's threats should be met with a response that that if Syria wishes to negotiate a settlement with Israel, it must show that its intentions are peaceful. It is Assad who must consider what price he will pay for peace. In the changing reality of the Middle East, offering Israel sovereignty over part or the Golan Heights might be a good start as a confidence building measure on the part of a state that is a client of the Iranian regime that has sworn itself to Israel's destruction.

The daily incendiary pronouncements of the Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran make it clear that if there is any need to calm the fears of the other side, and to convince the world of the possibility of reaching peaceful, negotiated accords in the Middle East, it is not Israel and the West that need to make confidence-building gestures.