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    Middle East
     Oct 13, 2011

Shalit deal sets scene for negotiations
By Victor Kotsev

On Tuesday, news broke that all of a sudden the Israeli government was holding a vote on a prisoner swap deal with Hamas. Soon afterward, another report came out: the deal, which would release around 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, was approved.

Then Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for over five years, would be released "in the coming days".

This is a significant development that will undoubtedly upset the tense status quo between Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Despite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' professed enthusiasm for a deal [1], it is a blow to him; however, it may also help resurrect the Palestinian unity agreement, at least in appearance, and it might suggest enough of a possibility

for broad all-inclusive peace negotiations to justify putting off the Palestinian statehood bid a while longer.

It may also have regional implications - beside boosting slightly mediator Egypt's tarnished standing - since freeing Shalit would likely rank high on any Israeli prime minister's war preparations list.

Some details of the deal that are not yet public give rise to speculation. What is known is that 450 convicted terrorists, chosen by Hamas, will be released in the first part of the deal, with some 577 more prisoners picked by Israel released a couple of months later. At least 280 of the first group of prisoners are serving life sentences (many are sentenced to multiple life terms).
The identities of most prisoners to be swapped have not been released yet, which makes it difficult to say whether the terms Netanyahu settled on are better than those discussed previously. According to senior Israeli officials quoted by the Israeli press, Hamas caved in on its insistence that several senior terrorists be released, including Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Sadaat [2].

Barghouti, a former leader of a movement that broke off from the Fatah party currently chaired by Abbas, is often groomed as a potential unifying figure in Palestinian politics, due to his enormous popularity with the Palestinian public; he is serving five life sentences for his role in the murders of Israelis in the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising).

Both sides seem to have compromised on the identities and number of prisoners to be deported from the West Bank and from the Palestinian territories. According to Ynet, 110 terrorists will be released to the West Bank. In another major concession, Netanyahu has agreed to release a number of Israeli Arabs, including residents of East Jerusalem.

Overall, Hamas seems to have carried most of what it wanted - it had been demanding the release of 1,000 prisoners from the start. Several observers note that this is the largest number of prisoners exchanged for a single Israeli soldier, ever. It is not surprising, therefore, that Hamas' leader Khaled Meshal announced that the deal was a "national Palestinian achievement". He contradicted the Israeli account, suggesting that Barghouti would be freed, alongside his "VIP list of 315 prisoners". [3]

Though only three Israeli ministers voted against the deal (including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman) Netanyahu clearly took a chance. There are several potential reasons for his decision.

For example, he could be trying to undermine Abbas, whose defiance of American and Israeli pressure at the United Nations caused his popularity to skyrocket among the Palestinians. Prominent Israeli analysts Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel offer the following perspective in an article in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz:
[T]he big winner is Hamas ... Within Hamas, the big victor is the head of its military wing, Ahmed al-Jabari, who again and again stood up to pressure from the organization's political leaders to close the deal by making further concessions ... For the PA [Palestinian Authority], ruled by the rival Fatah party, the deal is a severe blow. Abbas will now be forced to contend with a strong, popular rival, one whose infrastructure has been suddenly revived after having been almost wiped out. The hundreds of freed Hamas prisoners could also pose a military threat to his rule, and he will have to decide quickly how to respond. [4]
Jerusalem Post analyst Yaakov Katz, on the other hand, offers a different explanation. "Israel is concerned that the Arab regimes now in power will not be here tomorrow," he writes, "and that the Egyptian regime currently in power - the deal's main mediator - will not be there in a few months after elections are held in Cairo".
He also mentions that the recent change of the head of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet, also contributed to the breakthrough, as the new director, Yoram Cohen, was rumored to have been "more flexible" than his predecessor. [5]

Katz's former argument, if we trust Richard Silverstein, a controversial American-Jewish blogger and a sharp critic of Israel, is very close to what Netanyahu would have us believe in order "to appeal to his far-right flank". [6] Nevertheless, the sense of urgency is real. Not only is Egypt falling apart, but Syria seems to be in a state of low-intensity civil war that could ignite the region in the near future. Iran according to some accounts is apparently racing toward a nuclear device. A war could put off the prisoner swap deal for years, and there is a real danger that Shalit might disappear.

A more interesting possibility, however, is that Netanyahu could use the prisoner swap to suggest openness to dialogue with Hamas (something that Silverstein calls on him to do). I addressed this scenario several months ago, in an article titled (Not) all is quiet on the Israel-Palestine front (Asia Times Online, June 7, 2011). Back in June, Netanyahu himself claimed that if Hamas freed Gilad Shalit, this would indicate it was ready for peace talks.

This is not to say that we can expect serious peace talks between Israel and Hamas (or even between Israel and Fatah, for that matter). Palestinian national unity, which was drummed up earlier this year, before sinking again, is likely unsalvageable, but it makes for a good excuse to delay any controversial action at the UN. If a convincing show could be made, even of a potential for comprehensive peace talks between Israel and a Palestinian unity government, this would give everybody (including Abbas) a good excuse to shelve the Palestinian application for statehood.

In a way, peace talks right now would be a very good way for all sides to commit to nothing and to register activity. In order to succeed, such negotiations would require a certain amount of overall regional stability; instead, with so many tensions running so high in the Middle East, anything beyond the short-term future is hard to foresee, and spoilers can count on plenty of golden opportunities to derail the process.

In yet another scenario, the Shalit deal also opens Netanyahu's way for moves that would play the two main Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, off one another. For example, it is possible to imagine further Israeli moves of disengagement from Gaza. The fact that Shalit is no longer in the Strip, moreover, would open up Israel's ability to retaliate against Hamas in confrontations.

For Netanyahu, thus, the prisoner swap is a risk - it will backfire spectacularly with the Israeli public if any of the released terrorists murder further Israelis - but it is also a big opportunity. He delivered a blow to Abbas. He settled a painful issue for Israeli society, and came across domestically as a decisive leader - for a change.

While it is far from clear that the peace talks will restart, much less with Hamas participating, any kind of major movement, anything that is interpreted as a compromise, can help Israel, and Netanyahu personally, on the international front. His forte is diplomacy - keeping his cards close to his chest - and with the deck reshuffled, he will be able to continue playing the game as usual.

1. Abbas applauds Israel-Hamas prisoner deal, Ma'an, October 12, 2011.
2. Shalit deal to include 1,027 security prisoners, Ynet, October 12, 2011.
3. Hamas: Shalit deal a national Palestinian achievement, Ynet, October 11, 2011.
4. Hamas is the big winner in the Shalit swap deal, Ha'aretz, October 12, 2011.
5. Analysis: Schalit and the Arab Spring , Jerusalem Post, October 11, 2011.
6. Palestinian prisoners, Shalit freedom near, Tikun Olam, October 11, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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