Wednesday, December 23, 2009

2010 - A Good Year To Die - Unless You're Gilad Shalit

Tel Aviv
23 December 2009

2010 is a good year to die. At least it is if you are subject to the US Internal Revenue Code and have a taxable estate. Why? In 2010, the estate tax and its evil spawn, the generation skipping tax, completely disappear for one year. (Trust me, if you don't have an estate worth more than $3.5 million and grandchildren to whom you want to give very large gifts you don't want me to explain the GST. If you do then you've already hired good tax counsel and don't need me to tell you about the GST but you are definitely picking up the check when we next have lunch.) In 2011, the estate tax and GST rise again, as from the dead, like a movie's bad guy who just won't die in the last reel. And, like the bad guy who comes back but short a limb, the two taxes come back with a much lower exempted amount. In sum, unless Congress changes the law, if you die and/or make gifts to grandchildren in 2009 you can exempt up to $3.5 million from the two taxes, in 2010 you get a free ride and in 2011 the exemption drops to a mere $1.5 million or so. As they say in the trade, this leaves us with numerous planning opportunities, especially if you can time someone's death.

And so, as I write this, good tax attorneys are faced with the somewhat ghoulish but necessary task of telling people who hold the health care proxy of a parent or grandparent on life support that, to best effect their loved one's wishes regarding the estate (which is lawyer talk for keeping the money out of the hands of the government), they might want to consider spending one last New Year's Eve with mom or grandpa, before pulling the plug. Absent a change in the law, which Congress keeps promising but failing to do, the conversation during the last week of 2010 will be even more ghoulish as pulling dad's or grandma's plug before the new year begins leaves more money for the grieving loved ones.

This sounds pretty cold but death is something that can't be avoided. The only questions are who and when and what are the consequences. Which brings us to Gilad Shalit.

The current debate raging in Israel makes the estate tax and GST conundrum look like fun and games. The Israelis are not talking about money, they're talking about lives. Their lives and the lives of their children. Lives already lost and those that may be lost in the future. As of this writing, the Israeli Prime Minister has allowed his negotiators to send, through a German mediator, Israel's response to what Hamas has described as its last demands (they may say "offer" but these are not people interested in bargaining or who really give a damn about human life). The media reports that Israel is ready to agree to release about 1000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the safe return of Shalit. This includes about 100 convicted murderers who have no regrets or remorse and are (if past experience holds true) very likely to just go back to terrorism once they are set free. Israel is asking that the worst of the worst be exiled, either to Gaza from the West Bank or out of the territories to other countries. Hamas has said it will take a few days to consider a reply. And so we wait.

The arguments for and against the deal are all correct. In arguing against this deal many have pointed out that freed terrorists go back to terrorism, and Jews die. Hamas is demanding freedom for men who are not just good soldiers but leaders of Hamas and similar groups. If denied the opportunity to go back to blowing people up in Israel or the West Bank, they'll blow people up wherever they can. While everyone fears for the safety of Gilad Shalit (what happens to him if no deal is made?) those opposed to a deal see it as merely substituting one victim for other victims.

Furthermore, every terrorist group will have further proof that Israel will pay a huge price for the return of an Israeli. What other conclusion could they draw if Bibi Netanyahu, a man who made a political career out of being tough on terrorism, gives in to Hamas' demands? Doing the Shalit deal will inspire further attempts at kidnapping Israeli soldiers and civilians and, sooner or later, one or more will succeed.

Finally, doing the deal will give Hamas a significant political victory. Palestinians will dance in the streets, cheering the group who drove Israel to its knees, honoring their returning heroes and calling for the next wave of "resistance." The deal will set in concrete Hamas' rule in Gaza and give them a good chance of taking over in the West Bank should Abu Mazen ever be so foolish as to allow free elections.

And on the other side of the debate, we have an entire country run by for and about Jews, who value human life above all. Jews who do not raise their children to be martyrs. A majority of the Israeli public seems willing to pay any price to bring Shalit home. For his Mother's sake. And because those being asked are Jewish parents who want to know that their children would also be ransomed if taken captive. The bottom line is that every life is precious and, even if the price is terrible and risks more deaths, that life has got to be saved. Israel does not leave soldiers behind on the field and should not do so now.

Those who want Shalit home by doing the deal will tell you that Hamas, Hezbullah and their ilk will try to kill or kidnap Jews, whether or not Gilad comes home. So we may as well bring Gilad home. The weight of the survival of Israel should not be put on his narrow shoulders.

As for Hamas' political victory from the deal, Israelis arguing for the deal will tell you that Hamas will have its moment in the sun but then, a few months from now, with no end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza in sight and no reconciliation with the PLO, it will be a matter of "what has Hamas done for us lately."

Israel does not handle this sort of crisis like other nations. (Of course, most other nations don't have their citizens routinely subject to acts of terrorism.) Before responding to Hamas, Bibi and his closest aides met with all the military, intelligence and political leaders you'd expect a Prime Minister to consult with. But they also met with Shalit's parents. (An easy meeting to arrange since the Shalits and their supporters have been camped out in front of the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem for close to a year now.) They also met with the survivors of the victims of those who might now be freed and with the leaders of a group representing the parents, spouses and children of Israelis murdered by terrorists set free in earlier deals. The press reports that the Prime Minister spent most of the meetings just listening to the real people who will be affected in very real ways by whatever he decides to do.

Will the deal get done? No one knows for sure. Hamas is run by at least four different factions (the political and military wings in Gaza, the political wing in Damascus and the prisoners who are the very subject of the negotiations). One of the reasons that a deal has not yet been made is that every time the parties get close, one or more of the Hamas factions finds an excuse to back away. My own theory is that some of the Hamas leadership is reluctant to make the deal because giving up Shalit means giving up power. (Yeah, I know this sounds like the behavior of a 4 year old but remember, we are dealing here with politicians and religious zealots, so what's the difference?) Maybe they've figured out that any victory will be fleeting (see above). For it's part, the Israeli government is very badly divided on the deal and there's no guarantee that a "Yes but" reply from Hamas would generate a positive Israeli response.

Whatever happens, the "resistance" will continue. And, either angered by the lack of a deal or encouraged by the making of a deal, someone is going to go out and express his inner terrorist by killing a Jew. And then Bibi is going to have to deal with the consequences which will likely include explaining to the victim's Mother why he made the deal, or didn't make the deal, that led to the death of her child. Which is why I think Bibi will find a way to bring Gilad home. Given his low opinion of the Palestinian leadership, he's going to conclude (if he hasn't already) that no matter what he does a Jew will die, so he'll at least take the opportunity and save Gilad Shalit.

And so Bibi, like our tax attorney, is faced with the prospect of timing someone's death. The big difference is that the tax attorney knows who is going to die, knows that that death is unavoidable and has helped the soon-to-be-deceased plan for the consequences. Bibi gets to decide without knowing the ultimate outcome and has to deal with the consequences as they arise. Personally, I'd rather be the tax attorney.

No comments: