Nahum Barnea
Nahum Barnea
Photo: Dana Kopel
The Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria

Our woman in Damascus

Opinion: The latest prisoner swap raises the question of how much Israel's citizens are responsible for their own actions and whether the government should intervene; we should also ponder whether our politicians are capable of pure altruism

Nahum Barnea |
Published: 02.22.21 , 23:31
Of all mendacious phrases in the world of diplomacy, none is more opaque than "humanitarian gesture."
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  • Governments who are neither interested in gestures nor humanitarianism take such symbolic steps from time to time to suit their own interests.
    4 צפייה בגלריה
    מעבר קוניטרה גבול סוריה רמת הגולן
    מעבר קוניטרה גבול סוריה רמת הגולן
    The Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria
    (Photo: EPA)
    This façade is easy to execute and market and creates a nice public relations boost.
    The crueler the regime, the more open it is to humanitarian gestures. Kill millions, but let a few hundred flee - an equation the Jewish people have bled for throughout their history.
    Calling the recent prisoner swap with Syria for the return of an Israeli woman a "humanitarian gesture" is an overstatement if ever there was one.
    Russia made a "humanitarian gesture" to Israel, which in turn made a "human gesture" to Russia, which then made a "humanitarian gesture" to Syria.
    For a moment it seemed that Mother Teresa herself had risen from the grave to become the ruler of Israel, Syria and Russia.
    4 צפייה בגלריה
    בנימין נתניהו וולדימיר פוטין
    בנימין נתניהו וולדימיר פוטין
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2020
    (Photo: Reuters)
    But the reality - based on what we are actually allowed to know of the deal - seems to be far different.
    An Israeli citizen crossed the border of her own volition with the aim of residing in Syria.
    The Israeli government should have responded to this with a short statement among the lines of: "The young lady's wishes will be respected. Syria is an enemy state. If she changes her mind and decides to return to Israel, she will be arrested in accordance with the law."
    This is the way Western European nations acted when their citizens travel to the Middle East to join Islamic State. None of them negotiate with the terrorist group to get them back. And if they do return, they are greeted by the police.
    But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a master of reading the hearts and minds of his subjects.
    Within a short time, and with the help of some skillful public relations, a young person who wanted to leave Israel for Syria somehow became our woman in Damascus.
    Netanyahu - ever with one eye on his public image - did not go to all this effort to retrieve her for humanitarian reasons. After all, we have an election in a few weeks.
    4 צפייה בגלריה
    ולדימיר פוטין פגישה עם נשיא סוריה בשאר אסד ב סוצ'י רוסיה
    ולדימיר פוטין פגישה עם נשיא סוריה בשאר אסד ב סוצ'י רוסיה
    Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad
    (Photo: Reuters)
    So, the government convened a "secret" hearing, ministers signed off on a "secret" agreement and National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat even flew to Moscow on a special flight to bring her back.
    Israel was on a mission to retrieve a woman who had not asked to return.
    Throughout the entire saga, the lies did not stop. When the two Druze security prisoners from the Golan refused to be deported to Syria, two "sheepherders who accidentally crossed the border fence" were packed off instead.
    But the IDF always says there are no "innocent" sheepherders on the Israel-Lebanon border, only Hezbollah intelligence agents masquerading as such.
    And then there was the finder's fee demanded by Russian President Vladimir Putin. None of the parties could let themselves make this look like the mob deal that it was, so instead of a direct vaccine shipment to Syria, Israel gave money to Moscow to "cover expenses."
    I would wager that Ben-Shabbat didn't even ask for a receipt when he was in Moscow.
    This issue touches on the very core of our shared existence here: To what extent are Israel's citizens responsible for their own actions and when (if at all) does the government intervene?
    Elhanan Tannenbaum flies to Dubai in hopes of scoring a lucrative drug deal, gets kidnapped by Hezbollah and then-prime minister Ariel Sharon has to get him back in return for the release of hundreds of security prisoners – many of them terrorists with blood on their hands.
    4 צפייה בגלריה
    נעמה יששכר עולה על המטוס חזרה לישראל לאחר שחרורה מהכלא ברוסיה
    נעמה יששכר עולה על המטוס חזרה לישראל לאחר שחרורה מהכלא ברוסיה
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara greet Naama Issachar upon her release from a Russian prison last year
    (Photo: MCT)
    Naama Issachar gets arrested in a Moscow airport with marijuana and receives a harsh sentence either out of Russian cruelty or norms. Commuting her prison sentence required intensive and delicate handling by Israel's diplomats in Russia - while at almost the same time Israel transferred a piece of Jerusalem real estate to the Russian Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society.
    "All Jews are responsible for one another," say the politicians, but given the pandemic we have endured over the past year, it is hard to believe anyone is still acting solely out of the goodness of their hearts.
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