Shalit: Israel wins, but it's only half-time
By M K Bhadrakumar
Success, they say, has many claimants while failure is an orphan. The historic
Israel-Hamas prisoner swap deal fits this old adage. Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and
Germany - they all played stellar roles. But ultimately, the success belongs to
Israel and it can only claim credit for it. On the other hand, the match is
only half-way through and the trophy cannot yet be claimed.
Hamas on Tuesday released 25-year-old Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange
for the freedom of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, some of whom had
been convicted of deadly crimes.
A country that puts the highest stakes on rescuing the life of a
single citizen has something going for it and Israel persevered by means of
cajoling and threats and temper-tantrums to get Hamas let go of Shalit, who was
captured five years ago. That alone presents a marvelous sight and the Israeli
nation is genuinely savoring it. It is writ all over Israeli newspapers.
Moments such as this vindicate the raison d'etre of any state, and that too a
But transcending the sense of jubilation, Israel has gained on other
substantive counts. The politics in the Middle East has taken a new turn with
the Shalit swap. At least six new templates have surfaced, which is an
extraordinary geopolitical happening, each significant in itself and more so in
combination with the others.
First and foremost, Egypt is being widely applauded for its role in negotiating
the swap deal and thereby it has moved to the center stage of regional
politics, regaining its traditional leadership role in Arab politics. The
fallouts are going to be immense in terms of its relations with the United
States, Israel and its neighbors.
Conversely, the outcome of the current political transition in Egypt has
transformed and has become a phenomenally significant thing for the entire
region and beyond. In the process, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi may
just have consolidated his power base and underscored his importance to Western
powers, especially the United States. It stands to reason that the US played a
behind-the-curtain role "dialoguing" with Tantawi over the intricacies of the
deal and encouraging him to go ahead.
Second, Turkey took a piece of the cake - albeit a small piece - and has
thereby taken yet another baby step to reclaiming its lost Ottoman legacy as a
Middle Eastern power of consequence. According to reports, Turkey was active in
consultation with Israel and Hamas, among others.
In the process, on the one hand, it may have taken the first step toward
defrosting its ties with Israel, while on the other hand it has successfully
flaunted its influence with Hamas - staking a claim, perhaps, to contributing
in some capacity to a future Middle East settlement.
Third, Qatar and Syria also played a significant role in the swap. They are
accepting the bulk of the Palestinian prisoners who are being released from
Israeli jails. Qatar is triumphantly continuing its march as a leader punching
above its weight in regional politics.
Already in Libya, Qatar seems to have gained the status of a kingmaker, and now
it aspires to be a heavyweight right in the first circle of Middle East
politics, which is occupied by the Palestinian problem and Arab-Israeli
relations. Surely, Qatar has emerged as one of the most valuable players for
Western powers on the Middle Eastern chessboard. It is a unique player, too - a
pawn and a rook combined.
Equally, Damascus has underscored that it can always be counted on as a factor
of regional stability. The Hamas leadership of Khalid Meshaal is based in
Damascus. Syria obviously was privy to the goings-on and not only concurred
with Hamas' pragmatism, but, conceivably, encouraged them. Syria's role will
not go unnoticed in Israel, which has been lost in thoughts all along regarding
the wisdom of "regime change" in Damascus.
Fourth, the absence of a direct role in the swap deal by the United States,
Saudi Arabia or Iran stands out. Yet, they were supposed to be key actors in
regional politics. The fact that the countries of the region could take an
initiative of this magnitude and the US at best lingered in the shadows carries
an important message in itself.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Iran were virtually left to congratulate the
Palestinian protagonists of the deal after it was struck. They are not known to
have had any say in choreographing events and their contribution, as it were,
is limited to their final acquiescence with the deal.
Fifth, Hamas has gained immeasurably in stature. It has been in consultation
with a wide array of nations during the deal, especially with Germany, and this
enhances its international profile and political legitimacy among the
The crux is that Hamas struck a deal with its sworn enemy. The time is getting
overdue for the full-fledged induction of Hamas as the legitimate voice of the
Palestinians at par - if not more influential - than with Fatah. Hamas has
virtually ensured that it will remain a strong actor in any settlement of the
Palestinian problem. The surge more than makes up for the recent dip in Hamas'
Sixth and finally, Israel has won hands down. It has "re-engaged" its Arab
neighborhood, especially Egypt. Across the board, Israel is breaking out of its
acute regional isolation in the aftermath of the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
Things can only get better now with Ankara, where there is already a nascent
feeling that the Turkish leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may
have carried the "unfriendliness" toward Israel a bit too far for the country's
But for Israel, the most precious gain is going to be that it is back in
business with Egypt, the one Arab neighbor it simply can't do without.
Egypt-Israel ties have been plummeting rapidly and conventional wisdom was that
things would get worse - perhaps, much worse - before they might get any
better. At a minimum, from the Israeli viewpoint, the dangerous slide has been
arrested and Israel will heave a sigh of relief that Egypt is reassuming its
role as a stakeholder in the relationship with it.
Also, this is only a beginning. Egypt has shown that it has the will and
capacity to play its leadership role, which it abdicated some three decades ago
following the Camp David peace accord. The country will feel emboldened to
assume bigger responsibilities in regional security and stability.
Israel can be trusted to encourage these tendencies. Significantly, Egypt and
Germany were the two countries that were singled out by Israeli President
Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for praise for making the
swap take place smoothly. Israel had earlier issued a formal apology to Cairo
on the recent killing of Egyptian security personnel in the Sinai - something
it doggedly refused to do to Turkey over the killing of members of the Free
Freedom Flotilla sailing to Gaza last year.
More than anything, the swap momentarily arrests the steady decline of Israel's
image worldwide in recent months. The upheaval in the Middle East seemingly
left Israel clueless as to how to navigate ahead. Its compass was
malfunctioning and it was plain to see.
The swap whereby Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinians for one Israeli in
a way repairs Israel's tarnished image. Arguably, Netanyahu acted under immense
pressure from Israel's isolation in the world community, but he has also hinted
now that he can be a serious partner in future negotiations.
However, the euphoria over the Shalit swap cannot last forever. The grim
realities will begin to resurface. Netanyahu needs to make some important
decisions in immediate terms as to how to garner the current positive outcome
so as to perpetuate it.
The lifting of the blockade of Gaza could be one such step. The heart of the
matter is that there has been an easing of tensions, but it needs to be
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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