Once upon a time, many years ago, Yaron London asked one of Israel’s most prominent poets, known for his scathing criticism of the State, under what circumstances he would agree to embark on war for the sake of the homeland. The poet frowned and responded: “When the Syrian tanks reach the northern bank of the Yarkon River.” A few years later, the first Gulf War broke out. Saddam Hussein’s missiles reached both banks of the Yarkon, and our poet was among the first ones to flee Tel Aviv.
There are poets like Haim Gouri and Yehuda Amichai; the wonderful poems they wrote did not prevent them from taking up arms. And there are other poets, whose contribution to society is summed up by their poems.
I do not wish to condemn the above-mentioned poet, but rather, to praise him; because he had a red line. Perhaps not in practice, but at least when he spoke. His red line was a Syrian tank on the bank of the Yarkon River.
One cannot say the same thing about many of the people who accompanied the sad campaign for Gilad Shalit’s release. I am not referring to his relatives. They have the full right, and possibly even a duty, to demand the return of their loved one at all costs. I am referring to many public officials, including a serving defense minister, Ehud Barak, and two former defense ministers, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Shaul Mofaz, who lended their support to the demand made at the protest tent in Jerusalem.
I do not know what their red lines are. I’m not sure they know. They came out of their secured vehicles, hugged the family, uttered a cliché or two to the cameras, and returned to their secured world.
Had they listened to the voices around them, they would learn something about the damage caused by the Shalit campaign. They would have heard students about to be enlisted into the army saying they won’t go because “the State is abandoning a soldier.” Many things happened around here during the country’s 61 years, yet we never had refusal to enlist under the wing of defense ministers.
Did the State abandon Gilad Shalit? There is no doubt that mistakes were made during the negotiations, yet even the harshest critics of the decisions that were taken do not argue that what we saw here was abandonment or neglect. This lie, which was inflated against the backdrop of the loss of public trust in the political establishment, constitutes the crossing of a red line.
Unhealthy processesThe unwritten contract between a State and its troops says that the soldier pledges to risk his life for it, and that the State pledges not to risk his life in vain and do everything possible to free him from captivity. The contract does not say this should be done “at all costs.” And it also doesn’t say something else: That a soldier is a child, a helpless creature, and that safeguarding his life is the essence and is more important than the military mission and the lives of the civilians the soldier is supposed to defend.
The State is always bad. The soldier is always a victim. These are new insights that stem from unhealthy processes Israeli society has undergone in recent years. They constitute the crossing of a red line.
We are used to describing these kinds of dilemmas with simplistic terms: An abducted soldier; the other side makes demands; the prime minister takes a decision. Yet this is not what happened in the past and it did not happened in the Shalit case. It’s a process. Changes took place on both sides during this process. Yet the greatest change took place within Israel’s public opinion.
It gradually shifted from complete refusal and expectation of salvation via a military operation to willingness for far-reaching concessions. On such issue, which is both moral and emotional, the prime minister may be able to affect his public opinion, or even pave the way, but he cannot act in complete contradiction to the public mood. The street does not control the government, but the government has to listen to it. This is the essence of democracy. Those who play reality games with public opinion cross a red line.
The negotiations on Shalit’s release will resume in the coming days. The crisis in the talks did not necessarily cause harm: Hamas had an opportunity to better recognize its limits in influencing the decision-making process in Israel; Israelis had a chance to be exposed to the dilemma faced by their government.
There is no society in the world that can survive without red lines; certainly not Israel. Red lines are not territorial regions or numbers of prisoners, yet they are about willingness to fight for the sake of society’s existence and pay the required price, as high as it may be. Red lines are about endurance: Sadly, we shall have more wars and more abductees. We must not conduct ourselves as if Gilad Shalit is the last captive.