In 1979, Iranian college students took over the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held 52 men hostage for 444 days.* As a final insult to the American president, Jimmy Carter, the students released the hostages on his successor's inauguration day.
A political cartoon from that period showed the American eagle locked in a birdcage.
I thought of that image when considering Israel's situation regarding its soldier Gilad Shalit held hostage by Hamas since June 25, 2006. Hamas is a secretive, shadowy terrorist organization. But Israel is a sovereign state with an international spy operation that has no rival in the world. When Israel decides to assassinate Hamas leaders, it does so. In fact, the professional execution of a terrorist operative in Dubai last week is widely attributed to Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, which refuses to confirm or deny its involvement. This is its standard plausible deniability tactic.
So what's the problem? Why is Gilad Shalit still being held hostage, after nearly four years?
At the conclusion of a service in many orthodox synagogues, the prayer leader will say a paragraph of tehillim (usually Psalm 130) "because of the ongoing situation in Israel," which refers to the conflict in general but specifically to Shalit. I'm tired of it, not just because it makes the service longer (which is selfish) but because the situation could most likely be easily solved. There's only one way to find out.
There is probably no diplomatic solution to the hostage situation. If Hamas were to release Shalit at all, it would demand a significant prisoner exchange involving dozens or hundreds of convicted murderers. Other than that, there is no good reason for Hamas to give up its one ace in the hole to its sworn enemy. It would lose considerable credibility and respect from the "Arab street" it claims to represent.
When China kept American servicemen hostage for a week or so in 2001, the U.S. president apologized (twice--embarrassing), and the People's Republic allowed the men to go home. When Iran captured British servicemen in 2007, there was intense international pressure on Iran to release the men. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw a public relations opportunity and released them within two weeks, saying, "This pardon is a gift to the British people." Since the world's conscience doesn't lose any sleep over a captured Israeli, Israel is getting almost no help in securing Shalit's release, despite his French and (awarded since capture) Italian citizenship.
Could Israel please stop acting like a scared little kid and start acting like a regional military power?
Call up Hamas and demand Shalit's unconditional release within 48 hours. Then start hunting down Hamas' murderous operatives and assassinate them--one per day. Shalit would be home soon enough. What would be the world's reaction? The extreme Left would once again be in the uncomfortable position of defending homicide terrorism. Sure, it does that anyway, but when one weighs Shalit's plight against the lives of terrorists, most of world opinion would be on Shalit's side.
Your move, Israel. Do you want to see Shalit grow old in captivity? He turns 24 in August. He should celebrate at home.
*They released the women and children almost immediately after the raid.