Gilad Shalit: Breakthrough or another Groundhog Day?

I got something a sinking feeling when I saw the front-page headline of today’s New York Times: “Prisoner Swap Appears Near In the Mideast — Israeli Soldier May Be Released by Hamas.” Sure enough, the online version of the story has been updated to include a statement from Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “There is ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
576329_091124_shalit2.jpg
576329_091124_shalit2.jpg
Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is seen in a video broadcast by an Israeli news channel on October 2, 2009. Israel freed 19 Palestinian women prisoners in a swap for two minutes and 40 seconds of footage showing soldier Gilad Shalit looking healthy after more than three years in captivity at the hands of Gaza militants. AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

I got something a sinking feeling when I saw the front-page headline of today's New York Times: "Prisoner Swap Appears Near In the Mideast -- Israeli Soldier May Be Released by Hamas." Sure enough, the online version of the story has been updated to include a statement from Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “There is still no deal, and I do not know if there will be one.”

It isn't that I'm not hopeful for the release of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who's been held by Hamas for over three years. It's just that, as I've written recently, we've been here before. Every few months bring a new round of talks that are "close to a deal" on a prisoner-swap for Shalit's release... or at least "close" according to negotiators looking to affect the outcome through strategic leaks. The reports usually hit the Israeli papers first, before getting picked up internationally. 

I got something a sinking feeling when I saw the front-page headline of today’s New York Times: “Prisoner Swap Appears Near In the Mideast — Israeli Soldier May Be Released by Hamas.” Sure enough, the online version of the story has been updated to include a statement from Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, “There is still no deal, and I do not know if there will be one.”

It isn’t that I’m not hopeful for the release of Sgt. Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier who’s been held by Hamas for over three years. It’s just that, as I’ve written recently, we’ve been here before. Every few months bring a new round of talks that are “close to a deal” on a prisoner-swap for Shalit’s release… or at least “close” according to negotiators looking to affect the outcome through strategic leaks. The reports usually hit the Israeli papers first, before getting picked up internationally. 

Even in the original Times story, reporter Ethan Bronner doesn’t even seem all that confident in the quality of the information he’s getting and quotes Israeli Intelligence Minsiter Dan Meridor saying, “Those who don’t know can talk, those who know should keep silent.” 

But those who are talking, (who, apparently, don’t know anything, according to Meridor), are also throwing out the tantalizing possibility that the prisoner exchange could include the popular Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is considered be a strong contender to succeed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with the small problem that he’s currently serving five life sentences. As Blake Tweeted, his release would be a game changer in the peace process. 

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) Barghouti’s release appears about as likely as Shalit’s. That is, we have no idea. Danny Danon’s assurances that there is a “serious chance” of Barghouti being part of the deal is followed immediately by deputy prime minsiter Silvan Silvan Shalom’s assurances that there isn’t.

So, once again, we know that there are talks in Cairo which involve a possible deal for Shalit and may or may not be close to a resolution. Every possible fact presented by one Israeli government official seems to be contradicted by another. In other words, we know next to nothing. And previous experience with Shalit talks should indicate that we probably know even less than we think we do.

So why does the international media keep getting burned by this story?

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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