A day after Gilad Shalit was set free by Hamas, Israel’s ambassador to the United States denied his government could have struck the same bargain with his captors two years ago.
“That’s not true,” insisted Michael Oren as he addressed 1,000 participants in an Oct. 19 conference call sponsored by the Jewish National Fund.
“Hamas substantially reduced its demands,” he said. “Hamas is weakening. Hamas has been weakened by the situation in Syria…and so too have gone Hamas’s fortunes in the Gaza Strip. The economy is abysmal. Support for Hamas has imploded. Hamas is hemorrhaging support, not just in Gaza but in the West Bank as well.
“Because it is weakening we were able to reach a much better deal” to secure the release of Shalit.
Oren, whose roots are in West Orange, spoke to journalists and JNF supporters ahead of a visit to the United States that included a stop this week at the New Jersey State House in Trenton (see related article).
In Israel, the deal to free Shalit was widely popular but still prompted criticism there and abroad that the freeing of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners poses a security risk to Israel.
Oren insisted that the list of freed prisoners excluded “all the Hamas leaders they wanted to see freed,” including “some of the more egregious terrorists who had Jewish blood on their hands. They could not get out. This is very important for us,” he said.
Oren said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is also cognizant of the fact that the Middle East is changing very rapidly, and no one knows what is going to happen in another month. He saw this as an opportunity he thought he had to take now to close the deal, and the deal came at a painful price.”
Earlier in the 30-minute call, Oren spoke of the “Jewish principle of redeeming captives that is in our holy books. Gilad Shalit is one of our children. We send our children out to defend our state, and should anything happen to them, should they be held captive or worse, Israel will do anything in its power to bring them back to their families and reunite them with us. That principle is reaffirmed before the world, before our enemies.”
“Of course, we paid a very painful price. As we share the joy of the Shalit family, we partake of the pain of the families of the victims,” he added.
Would that high-priced deal inspire more kidnapping of Israeli soldiers or civilians in the future?, a questioner asked.
“Not a month goes by when Israel is not dealing with some threat of a kidnapping,” said Oren. “They are constantly trying to kidnap our soldiers. They are constantly trying to kidnap our civilians. It is only through our vigilance and our capabilities that we have been able to thwart these constant attempts to kidnap us.”
Asked whether the prisoner exchange might lead to a thaw in hostilities between Hamas and Israel and a possible suspension of the rocket attacks from Gaza, the ambassador replied, “The answer to that is very easy; the answer is ‘no.’ Even if Hamas had made us promises, what value would they have had?”
Turning to other parts of the Middle East, Oren said the upheaval of the Arab Spring “poses a number of risks to us.”
However, he also sees “opportunities in this region,” pointing to Egypt.
“It continues to uphold the peace process with us…and look at the great role Egypt played in securing the release of Gilad Shalit,” he said. “We are very appreciative of that role.”
The popular uprising against the Syrian government, meanwhile, presents “an opportunity to weaken the strategic lines between Syria and Iran and perhaps weaken the alliance between Syria and Iran. The departure of Syrian president Bashar el Assad would be a good thing.”
Oren praised President Barack Obama for invoking strong economic sanctions against Iran and for promising “to keep all options on the table.”
He saluted “Israel’s deep-seated alliance with the United States — the Obama administration, Congress, and the American people. It is a relationship with the same spiritual roots,” he said.