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    Middle East
     Oct 20, 2011

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 besieged state.

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 Palestinian people.

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' popularity.

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 long-term interests.

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 followed through.

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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