Israeli public supports a Schalit agreement

The government meeting that went on for four hours Tuesday evening resulted in a vote for the prisoner exchange deal:  26 voted for and three against releasing Gilad Schalit for a price of 1027 prisoners, roughly 450 with blood on their hands.

In my assessment, the government vote is a pretty good indicator of how the public feels at this moment: 10% against the deal, and the rest – 90% for it.

The public mobilization for Schalit has been massive. There has hardly been a single major public forum that has not been leveraged to call for Schalit’s release. The family of the kidnapped soldier has been ubiquitous – and tireless. Most heart-wrenching is the unflagging effort of his parents, brother and friends, who have spent their days in a tent, traveling, talking, always and to everyone – neither sleep nor slumber for them in the pursuit of their son.

As a result, Schalit has become the pan-Israel cause, one of the single most unifying factors felt in the Israeli discourse today.

And yet, the last time a deal was really in the air, there was far more talk of the very deep dilemma posed by such a deal. It was December, 2009, and I tested the weighty arguments for and against a prisoner deal for my column in the Jerusalem Report (the original column is not available on-line). Overall, support was high at the time: a Panels internet survey for Channel 2, from March 2009, showed 67% support for his release in return for prisoners “with blood on their hands.” In my column, I observed that:

In a dispassionate analysis, the list of pros and cons for a Schalit deal practically balance each other out. In this context, public opinion could be viewed as the deal-breaker. And public opinion is not dispassionate.

Past surveys show clear support for previous deals: In the Tami Steinmetz War and Peace Index from late June 2008, 71 percent of the Jewish population supported releasing “hundreds if not more” prisoners for Schalit, and only 21% opposed (the gap was even slightly larger when Arab respondents were included). In the same survey, 61% supported the release of terrorists, including the infamous Samir Kuntar, with only 31% opposed, in exchange for soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were presumed dead in Lebanon. The same figure of 61% was confirmed by a Dahaf poll published in the Hebrew mass daily Yedioth Ahronoth at around the same time.

But when faced with the weighty arguments presented in a balanced way in our survey, the public was far more divided, and only a plurality, not a majority, supported it. In the telephone survey of 500 Israeli Jews from 8-9 December 2009, I asked:

If the state does not save each captured soldier, even by releasing many terrorists, Israelis are likely to lose faith that the state will back up IDF soldiers.” – OR “If the state saves all captives by freeing many terrorists, it encourages kidnappings in the future and the state thereby endangers the lives of IDF soldiers in the future.” [People had to choose which view is closer to their own]

… Some 46% of respondents, not quite an absolute majority, felt closer to the view that if the state fails to save a soldier, they might lose faith that the state will back up IDF soldiers in general. Nearly one-third (31%) were more concerned that a deal means the state is endangering soldiers in the future. Those who chose the option favoring a deal showed more intensity – they agreed much more with that sentence, at twice the rate of those who agreed much more with the sentence focused on the dangers of a deal – 33% to 17%. Nine percent felt both to be true, and another 12% could not decide at all between them.

Some demographic groups showed surprising trends. Young people were less worried that failure to cut a deal indicated the state forsaking its soldiers than older respondents: 42% under the age of 55 chose the pro-deal option, while among respondents over the age of 55, half chose the pro-deal option. Haredim showed the greatest support for the sentence against a deal – 52 said that saving soldiers might encourage future kidnappings – Jerusalem and West Bank residents showed a similar trend, where over 50% supported the statement that a deal would endanger soldiers in the future, and fewer who chose the pro-deal option.

At this point, I believe the public has completely dropped its doubts. The emotional factor has taken over.

In June 2010, at the four year mark, a Channel 10-Nana survey showed that 66% felt the government wasn’t doing enough to achieve his release, and 53% supported a deal that would free 1,000 prisoners and 100 with blood on their hands. One-third opposed it, and 13% were unable or unwilling to decide.

While activists for his release never let up, this year seems to have seen heightened activity and perhaps even higher consciousness. A television drama about the moment of his kidnapping grabbed attention – before it was shown, 59% said they had heard of it, and 70% of survey respondents who had heard about it said they planned to watch.

Then in June, 2011 – five years since Schalit was kidnapped, a survey showed 63% support for releasing him at a price of 1,000 prisoners, 450 with blood on their hands. Thus, support has gone up and down, and people respond to nuances – but there has always been high support and desire for this deal.

Beyond the numbers, he is a symbol. As Noam Schalit said to the cameras and microphones late Tuesday night, this is a symbolic day. Symbols unite people and now hardly anyone is asking about the repercussions of the deal – except the government nay sayers.

And on the practical level, my own opinion remains what it was back then:

The bitter reality is that Palestinians who pose a security threat but are currently incarcerated in Israel prisons are merely “spare parts” in the machine of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and this deflates the security argument. [It’s] this conflict [that] generates terror, not the prisoner releases. If they stay in jail, someone else will do their job…

Today I say – let him out, and end the conflict.

This post has been updated, 9:30am, 12 October, 2011