The Middle East Channel

10 comments on the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange deal

As temporary dwellings are erected around Israel to welcome the festival of sukkot tonight, one such tent dwelling was being dismantled — that of the Shalit family perched opposite the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence. While few if any of the names of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be released in the coming days will ever ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

As temporary dwellings are erected around Israel to welcome the festival of sukkot tonight, one such tent dwelling was being dismantled — that of the Shalit family perched opposite the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence. While few if any of the names of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to be released in the coming days will ever be known outside of a small circle within their own community, Gilad Shalit has become a recognized name in diplomatic cables, media outlets, and even households across the world. And barring any last minute hiccups, Gilad will soon be on his way home to what is anticipated to be an unprecedented reception and outpouring of emotions. Most if not all of the details are now known of this Egyptian-mediated prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas. In exchange for Shalit, Israel will release 450 prisoners this week, including 315 lifers, 45 East Jerusalemites, 27 women, six Arab Israelis, followed by 550 "lesser" political prisoners of Israel’s choice in the near future. It is still not clear where those who are barred from returning to the Occupied Palestinian Territories will take up residence — or how this might impact the Palestinian prisoner’s strike begun recently.

The battle of spin will not await those particulars, with both parties keen to explain why this was a good deal for their side. When the full story of the Shalit negotiations are known, we are likely to discover that a very different price was available in the earliest days, one involving a broader ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Hamas. That option was lost long ago. Here then are ten reflections on the broader implications and consequences that this dramatic deal might have for Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the conflict.

1) Prisoner swap math: past, present, and future

While it is far from unprecedented for Israeli governments to cut such deals, this one does raise the numerical bar. Until now, the most (in)famous exchange had been the Jibril Agreement of 1985 in which 1,150 Palestinian security prisoners were exchanged for 3 Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon. A similar deal had been cut two years earlier with Israel receiving 6 soldiers in exchange for 4,000 Arab prisoners (the high numbers on the Arab side also attest to how readily Israel has taken people prisoners in both the Lebanese and Palestinian arenas). So when it comes to receiving living soldiers (the 2008 exchanges with Hezbollah for Goldwasser and Regev were sadly corpses), Netanyahu has allowed Hamas to score a mathematical win in upping the ante. Interestingly, the near unanimity of approval in the Israeli cabinet last night of 26 votes in favor and three against closely approximated previous votes (there was only one "no" vote in 1985 and the 2008 exchange was approved 22 to three).

On the Shalit deal, both sides will claim that they held to certain red lines, but in truth it is the Israeli side that blinked first. In the words of Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea in today’s Yediot paper, "the change was here, not in Gaza and not in Damascus. The red lines were crossed here, not in Gaza and not in Damascus."

What might all of this mean if any future negotiation needs to occur (and the motivation to capture Israeli soldiers will not have been diluted by the Shalit deal one imagines)? Formally, Israel has declared that a professional committee — the Shamgar commission — will produce criteria by which future exchanges will have to be judged, but few expect that to be upheld in reality. The real implication probably lies elsewhere. Yitzhak Rabin was the Defense Minister who approved the Jibril agreement in 1985. When faced with the abduction of a prisoner almost 20 years later, Rabin sent his elite commando unit in to try to secure the release of Nachshon Wachsman in 1994. Wachsman never made it. The huge Israeli public mobilizations surrounding Shalit have a lot to do with another Israeli MIA, Ron Arad. I would expect Israeli leaders to err strongly on the side of the Wachsman option from now on (while obviously hoping for better results): conduct an early even if highly risky mission over the possibility of there being new Arad or Shalit scenarios.

2) The Israeli political fallout — Bibi (finally) makes a decision on something

The headline item is that this deal will be popular with Israelis. In fact, very popular. That may seem strange, given the enormous price and the scare-mongering that most tends to characterize day-to-day Israeli security discourse, yet it is a testimony to the success of the Shalit campaign and in particular his family in making Gilad everybody’s issue (of which more below).

Netanyahu has faced much criticism for treading water during his second term at the helm, and for failing to decide on any major issue in both the peace and security and domestic economic realms. This deal is being greeted as a defining moment for Netanyahu’s premiership and his legacy. In the words of Haaretz’s political commentator Yossi Verter, "the Shalit agreement is the most important deal of his [Netanyahu’s] life, and as things stand now — the most important decision of his present government…he will forever be remembered as the man that brought back Gilad Shalit." In the Israel Today paper, owned by Netanyahu’s close ally Sheldon Adelson and generally gushing toward the Prime Minister, analyst Matti Tuchfeld spoke of a decision that "proves that he is a leader. The decision needed to be taken by one person…It changes everything. It dwarves everything else."

This has already changed the conversation in Israel, and undoubtedly will for some time. Netanyahu will attempt to draw a line under the summer of social protests and over the question mark surrounding his lack of a peace policy. As bizarre as it may seem — after all how can this deal be a substitute for actually having a regional or security strategy for Israel, especially in the face of the Arab Spring? — this really cuts the mustard for much of the public. When the winter session of the Knesset convenes after the Jewish holidays (this may also help explain the timing), Netanyahu will have a new narrative as a strong leader willing to make a hard but necessary choice. If things go well, expect this to feature prominently in Netanyahu’s re-election campaign. This may be calculated, but it is a risk, especially if anyone released were linked to a future attack, something which the Shin Bet chief has warned of. Naturally, the deal is not without its critics, notably on the far right but also inside the cabinet and the mainstream media. The headlines today from the columnists in Israel Today’s main competitor newspaper, Maariv, scream "capitulation deal" (Ben Dror-Yemini) and "to hell with the consequences" (Ben Caspit), both pointing out that Netanyahu vociferously opposed the Jibril Agreement at the time and dedicated a section of his A Place Among the Nations book to criticizing this "shameful capitulation". This will not significantly damage Netanyahu with his right wing base, especially after greasing the wheels earlier in the week by announcing a committee to retroactively kosher unauthorized settlement outposts slated for evacuation. But two of the three ministers who voted against the deal are positioning themselves as alternative leaders of the Israeli right — one from within the Likud, the current Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe "Boogie" Ya’alon, and the other Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman. Should anything go wrong, expect a booming chorus of "I told you so".

3) Hamas leaves Abbas carrying the U.N. application consolation prize

The likely fallout on the Palestinian political side is no less dramatic and predictable. As put in simple, blunt terms by Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen on Israel Radio today, "this strengthens Hamas and weakens Fatah." Given the numbers that have past through Israeli jails over the years, the prisoner issue speaks to just about every Palestinian family. The contrast was rather stark: Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas was in South America being rebuffed by the Colombians in his appeal for support on the doomed-to-fail U.N. membership bid (Colombia is currently on the Security Council), while Hamas was securing concrete achievements back home. Again, the timing here was crucial — Abbas had just received a boost to his popularity by defying Israel and the U.S. in making an emotional appeal to the U.N. That would anyway be difficult to sustain if the U.N. move could not be morphed into something meaningful, but now it will be further downsized as a gesture in comparison to the pictures of hundreds of prisoners embracing their freedom.

Having been a bit in the political doldrums recently, Hamas can now expect an uptick in support, especially given the stress they are placing on this being a united, national Palestinian achievement, reflected in the cross-factional list of prisoners to be freed. The achievement will be further boosted by the deal including so many lifers as well as Palestinians from Israel and from East Jerusalem. Hamas can chalk up a military achievement in having successfully kept the location of Shalit’s captivity either secret or inaccessible for Israel. Likewise on the international front, Hamas shares will be on the rise, having worked effectively with a new Egyptian regime and being acknowledged as an interlocutor (of a kind) by Israel. Suggestions that this deal, in having been mainly brokered by military wing chief Ahmed al-Jabari, demonstrates a deep, internal division within Hamas (especially Gaza versus Damascus) are probably exaggerated — it is after all Khaled Meshaal who is now in Egypt and who announced the deal from Damascus last night. The big question is how this might all impact stalled Palestinian unity efforts. Calls have already taken place between Abbas and Hamas leaders, but it would be premature to assume movement on that stagnant front.

4) Egypt — SCAF delivers where Mubarak would not

Under the Hosni Mubarak regime Egypt tried to maintain a monopoly on two Palestinian-related files — the Shalit issue and the re-unification talks. Mubarak failed to secure any real progress on either of those fronts, giving rise to the reasonable suspicion that he was more interested in being the indispensable broker than on delivering outcomes. Since Mubarak’s fall, however, the new regime has successfully brokered at least an initial breakthrough on the Palestinian unity front and has now been key in this Shalit deal.

Is this about the current SCAF leadership proving its usefulness or does it say something more profound about post-Mubarak Egypt? For now, the jury is out and the answer might well be a bit of both. The new more public and assertive role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could well allow for a more constructive relationship with Hamas, and that seems to have been an ingredient in this latest development. It is also noteworthy that this Egyptian mediation was apparently conducted behind the back of the PLO.

Israel, too, would have an interest in maintaining calm on its Southern front and in demonstrating to the new Egypt that it can be a problem-solver, not only a problem-maker. If that can be achieved at the price of prisoners (and more can always be arrested as long as Israel controls the territories) rather than territory, then all the better — at least from the calculation of Netanyahu. Noteworthy is that a formal Israeli apology for the border incident with Egypt in August was issued and then nicely buried in the news of the Shalit deal.

5) The peace process? Forget it — Israel chooses Hamas (again)

Israel has made rather a habit over the years of playing divide and conquer with the Palestinian body politic. It is hard not to see the timing and content of this latest move as another link in that chain. Moreover, one conclusion begging to be reached is that some among the Israeli leadership prefer to see an ascendant Hamas to an ascendant Abbas. The Israeli evacuation of Gaza was convincingly depicted by Hamas as response to the success of their resistance — it quite clearly had nothing to do with negotiations with the Fatah-led PLO. Israeli negotiations with Hamas tend to be more serious and contain a greater degree of respect (albeit begrudging) for an adversary. It is unlikely that Jerusalem (West) will be shedding too many tears for a newly weakened Abbas, perhaps more easy to lure back into negotiations and to derail his U.N. path. All this might play well on CNN, but it might also be a huge miscalculation for the Israeli leadership — not just in its possible underestimation of Hamas, but also in the likelihood that Abbas may adopt a more strategic and challenging line or even meaningfully advance the re-unification of the Palestinian national movement.

6) Gladdening and maddening Israel

There is undoubtedly something touching about the solidarity in Israeli society represented by the response to the Shalit deal. Yes, that is about this being a small country and having a conscript army, and this sense of community demonstrates a certain core strength of Israeli society. At the same time, there is a nagging doubt — it is frustrating that the solidarity tends to extend only to Jewish Israel rather than all of Israel (and 20 percent of Israelis are non-Jewish, mostly Palestinian Arab) and that any sense of an ethical value system gets horribly stunted beyond the Green Line. But the Shalit case brought something more to the surface – a sense that the Shalit family had to themselves spend 1,935 days winning over public opinion for a deal in order for the political brass to then waltz through that door and finally assume leadership. By the time Bibi made his decision, the public was ready. Sure that is part of democracy and perhaps a function of time, but it also suggests a real leadership vacuum. One is left with the feeling that the family did the heavy lifting in every sense. The stoical, unassuming, and decent parents, the edgy girlfriend of the brother, the gutsy, loveable grandfather — it is all so reminiscent of the Regev and Goldwasser case.

7) An Arab Spring or an Iran footnote

In explaining the deal to his public, Netanyahu noted that "With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all for that matter…This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed." This strikes one as an unusual moment of realism in Israel’s non-strategic and heavy-handed response to developments in the region. If Israel does need to adapt itself to a changing region, surely this applies to more than just the case of Gilad Shalit. The idea that Arab democracy will be far less tolerant of Palestinian disenfranchisement than was Arab autocracy — and that therefore Israel needs to fundamentally reposition itself by ending the occupation and its denial of Palestinian freedom and equality — has not exactly made it onto the Netanyahu radar screen. It is perhaps too much to hope that he has now genuinely been bitten by the realist bug. All of which leads to Yediot’s defense analyst Alex Fishman to speculate today that the Shalit deal was a prelude "for something different, bigger, more important", going on to heavily hint that Israel is preparing itself to make a move on the Iranian front. It is a prospect perhaps made more terrifying by the allegations coming out of Washington yesterday regarding Iran. I tend not to agree with Fishman, but his sources clearly think otherwise.

8) A new dawn for Gaza?

Initial reports suggest that this deal was not part of a broader political arrangement between Israel and Hamas, although a fragile ceasefire has continued to hold for some time. The ongoing closure imposed by Israel on Gaza was on a number of occasions "justified" as being linked to the fact that Shalit was being held in Gaza. Setting aside for a moment the appalling nod to collective punishment that this exposes, it has to be hoped that a more humane as well as internationally lawful approach will now be taken vis a vis the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. World attention will undoubtedly focus on Gaza in the coming days with scenes of prisoners being welcomed home. But world attention should stay there long after those celebrations have given way to the daily reality of life under a closure regime. Gaza is not a prison in the sense that Gilad Shalit experienced captivity for the last 1,935 days, but basic freedom for Gazans is also long overdue.

9) Two fingers to the Palestinian Gandhi

Endless ink has been spilt bemoaning the absence of a Palestinian Gandhi or nonviolent struggle. Anyone paying attention will know that the Palestinian struggle is not exactly without its history of unarmed mobilization and in recent years increasing momentum has been gained by the movement for nonviolent popular struggle. In many villages in the West Bank, especially where agricultural lands have been confiscated, weekly unarmed demonstrations have taken place, leaders have been arrested and imprisoned, and injuries, sometimes even fatalities, have been incurred (in places such as Bil’in, Ni’lin, Nabi Saleh, Wallaje, and Budrus). Some of these leaders have been internationally recognized as human rights defenders, including Abdallah Abu Rahmah. By definition this struggle has been designed to embarrass and challenge Israel’s occupation policies and to draw global attention to the inhumanity of the occupation. It is a form of struggle far more challenging to Israeli policies than the violence of militants or the diplomacy of peace talks. And of course winning adherence to nonviolent struggle is always a struggle. The prisoner exchange deal will not make the task of a non-violent movement any easier; after all, it sends the signal that militancy gets results. But such is their lot.

10) Wither Marwan Barghouti

Marwan Barghouti, a popular figure in Fatah and considered a possible future Palestinian leader and held in an Israeli jail for five life sentences for acts during the 2nd intifada, was initially rumored to be part of the Shalit exchange. Whatever the intent of those rumors, they proved incorrect. If Israel were looking for an interlocutor who might unify the Palestinians behind a difficult but workable two-state deal, then Barghouti is considered by many to be that leader. If there was an opportunity to release Barghouti, this was it. Perhaps he is politically stronger in jail, but one thing has now been clarified: that is where he is staying.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of the Middle East Channel

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, the previous director of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation, and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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