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Is Bill Clinton the Key to Winning Gilad Shalit's Release?

This week marked four years since Israel went head-to-head with Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. The conflict lasted 34 days and displaced about a million Lebanese civilians and — temporarily — 3oo,000 to 400,000 Israelis. Both countries’ economies suffered. As rumblings of a 2010 rematch ripple throughout the region, hostage Gilad Shalit enters his fifth year in captivity.

Grabbed by Hamas during a raid on Israel’s Gaza border weeks before the July 2006 conflict broke out, Shalit has been held prisoner somewhere inside Gaza ever since. His parents have relentlessly petitioned the Olmert and Netanyahu governments to help secure their son’s release, and this month they organized a 12-day march to mark the anniversary of their son’s disappearance. The march received much media coverage and included the participation of hundreds of thousands, including celebrities Bar Refaeli and Zubin Mehta.

Despite requests for Shalit’s release from international human rights organizations, a UN fact finding mission, the papal nuncio to Israel, Egyptian intermediaries, U.S. and European officials, and even Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Hamas captors aren’t budging. Their demand: the release of over a thousand Palestinian security prisoners, many with Israeli blood on their hands and half of them Hamas members.

Israel’s government hesitates. Historically, policy has been to refuse negotiation with hostage takers. But, as senior political analyst Anshel Pfeffer told the Christian Science Monitor several years ago, Israelis “can come to terms with Israeli soldiers being killed, but we can’t come to terms with Israelis being taken as prisoners of war.” The last time an Israeli soldier was kidnapped, in 1994, the army launched a rescue operation that ended in the death of the kidnapped soldier, Nahshon Wachsman, and an officer involved in the failed rescue attempt.

“The popular feeling is that an Israeli citizen or soldier must not be in the hands of the enemy, so some impossible mission has to be done,” says Pfeffer. “The reality is, grin and bear it and deal with terrorists.”

During the 1994 Wachsman ordeal, one very memorable appeal to Hamas captors for the soldier’s release was put forth by then-President Bill Clinton. His words fell on deaf ears, and within twenty-four hours Wachsman was killed in the failed commando raid.

Sixteen years later, rumors plot Clinton in yet another Israeli soldier’s release scenario. According to press reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the former president to step in as a mediator between his government and Hamas leaders in securing Gilad Shalit’s release.

What could Clinton bring to the table that Egypt, Europe, the U.S., the UN, and international pressure haven’t yet presented?

He spends most of his time globe traversing and delivering paid speeches to political and philanthropic organizations on topics ranging from war, poverty, the Mid-East conflict, health care, and environmentalism. And in 2008 he vigorously aided his wife’s campaign effort.

It could be that Netanyahu turned to Clinton during his U.S. visit last week because the latter scored headlines last year by securing the release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The two women were sentenced to twelve years of hard labor in North Korea for crossing over from the south into the north.

But some would say Kim Jong Il agreed to the release due to “special relations” fostered by the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Namely, critics say, the 1994 Agreed Framework plan guaranteed U.S. supplies of oil and funds that ultimately helped fuel North Korea’s current nuclear arsenal.

Hamas leaders say they welcome an opportunity to expose, via Clinton, Israel’s crimes against Gaza. Clinton says he’ll gladly shake hands with Hamas leadership if they can provide the same guarantees Arafat did more than a decade ago. Namely, they’ll have to renounce terrorism first.

But Hamas is not an aging, former terrorist willing to temporarily lay down arms in exchange for requiting deep longings for glimpses of the family’s Gaza land before death beckons. Hamas is a classified terrorist organization calling in its charter for an Islamic state to replace Israel.

If called upon, can a middle-of-the-road, probably perceived as too pro-Israel Clinton score a Shalit release from Hamas? It’s a scenario the Israeli public and Shalit’s parents would like to see. But it will have to be one that allows Hamas to save face and gain prisoner releases. The price of the latter may be too steep for Israel’s tastes.

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