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Ransoming Israel’s Chance for Peace

MADRID – The exchange of prisoners between enemies is often a prelude to political reconciliation. Unfortunately, the recent exchange between Israel and Hamas, in which the Islamist organization gained the lion’s share of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, does not augur well for the chances of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Contrary to appearances, the deal is not a reflection of both sides’ interest in beginning a political rapprochement that might lead to the end of the Gaza siege and other confidence-building measures. This exchange reveals quite the opposite – that both parties are committed to their core values of resistance and confrontation.

For Israel, recovering Shalit was its way to uphold an ethos of unity in times of war, and to fulfill the army’s promise to its conscripts (and their families) that no soldier, dead or alive, would ever be left behind. The message was that Israel must remain mobilized and alert in a hostile environment, and that its survival depends on the cohesion of its citizens’ army, as well as on solidarity with those sent into battle.

Controversial and divisive, the Shalit deal triggered a profoundly moral debate in one of the world’s most vibrant civil societies. The deal is also, in the eyes of Israelis, a badge of honor for their res publica – their Periclean democracy’s claim to the moral high ground in an autocratic neighborhood.