In writing about this story, I find myself in a dilemma. On the one hand, I am an advocate of free speech (though not an absolutist on this as some on the left are); on the other, I want a prisoner exchange to end the Shalit imprisonment. Currently, the Israeli military censor has dictated that there be no release of the list of Palestinian prisoners to be released. Such a release would allow the Israeli right to lobby against the entire deal by profiling the bloody hands of specific terrorists to be released. The government wants no such public release until the cabinet signs an agreement approving the prisoner exchange. This would have the effect of taking the wind out of the sails of the far-right anti-exchange forces.
Interestingly, there is a High Court ruling that governs the censor and in this case the government is clearly violating that 1989 decision:
Justice Aharon Barak wrote that the military censor is authorized to prevent publication of an item only in circumstances in which “there is near certainty of actual harm to security” and in which there is no “other alternative means to prevent the risk without avoiding damaging freedom of expression.”
In the same ruling, which subsequently served as the basis for an agreement on the subject of censorship between the security authorities and the media, Barak wrote that it is precisely because of the implications the decisions involving security have on the life of the nation that “it is appropriate to open the door to an open exchange of views on security matters” in which the press “will be free to serve as a forum for the exchange of views and criticism regarding essential issues for society in general and for the individual.
There is absolutely no basis on which even the most draconian adherent of national security might argue that release of the names would harm anyone except possibly Gilad Shalit, whose freedom would be postponed. That makes the actual government argument in favor of censorship all the more ludicrous:
The state prosecutor wrote that unlike a prisoner release representing a diplomatic agreement or goodwill gesture, the current negotiations for Shalit are tantamount to “an ongoing terror attack” in which Israel is “bargaining” to reach a deal that would exact the lowest possible price.
…The state prosecutor wrote that ambiguity is essential to Israel’s very existence, and that without it, “it is impossible to hold effective negotiations and reach the goal of returning the abducted soldier to Israel.”
What he meant I think was not “ambiguity” but opacity. For opacity is what the military censor wishes in this case. And what is even more clear from this statement is that censorship is being used for a political, rather than national security purpose. Of course it’s possible to hold effective negotiations to release Shalit without ambiguity or opacity. Israel has done so before. The difference now is that Israel has a hard right government for whom democratic values are peripheral considerations.
Though I’m 100% in favor of the exchange, I think the entire process of negotiating this exchange is important, including how it is approached within Israel itself. If there is to be a debate why not have at it? Let everyone know who will be released. Let the far right do their damndest to undermine the deal. That will make the actual deal, which I have little doubt would go through anyway, all the more solid.
To negotiate a deal without such a full democratic debate undermines the validity of the enterprise itself and diminishes Shalit’s freedom when it is actually won. To me, this abuse of military censorship is of a piece with the general decline in so-called Israeli democracy. And what is so strange about this case is that I’m on the same side as some of these far-right pro-settler militants who I so despise. But of course, we are on the same side for completely different reasons which what is crucially important. For them, they’d like to wreck a prisoner exchange because essentially they’d prefer to nuke Hamas and Gaza back to the Stone Age rather than negotiate with the Islamist movement. For me, I see the prisoner exchange as a smallest chance of a fuller dialogue taking place at some later date between Hamas and Israel.