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Does Shalit Deal Point To A New Stage In the Middle East?

Gilad Shalit appears set to finally come home as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. PM Netanyahu told members of his cabinet that this is “the best deal that we could have gotten at this time”, but the long term consequences seem more likely to undermine Israeli security than to enhance it. The FT reports:

Israel’s cabinet has agreed a prisoner exchange deal with the Islamist group Hamas that would see the release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit, who has been held in captivity since 2006…Little has been known of his fate since then. The agreement would exchange Sgt Shalit, 25, for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

1,000 Palestinian prisoners released? Some of those prisoners are serving lengthy sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.  In the past, prisoners released in these exchnages have gone back to killing; it is likely that more than one Israeli citizen will die at the hands of people released in this exchange.

Of course, any deal to release Shalit is good news. The whole country has been held hostage by his plight: a very public campaign has for years urged the government to strike a deal with Hamas. Yet the price Israel is paying for his safe return is enormous. Talk about incentivizing the other side: Netanyahu might as well be painting a giant “Kidnap Me!” sign on every Israeli. If this prisoner swap goes through, what’s to stop Hamas (or other bold, rogue Palestinians) from kidnapping other Israeli soldiers and doing the same thing all over again?

Nothing.  Nothing at all.  It was a kidnap attempt that launched the 2006 war in Lebanon.  Israel is setting itself up for still more of these crises.

So why did the Israelis do it?  Partly domestic politics, partly the other kind.  A long and focused campaign made Shalit’s release a big domestic priority in Israel, linked to the idea that the Israeli government should do everything in its power to safeguard all of its troops and its people.  Just as US Marines will take risks to ensure that they leave no one behind, not even their dead, Israelis want to take care of their own.  Getting this negotiation done was a way for the government to boost its popularity and look effective; getting it done at this moment in the Middle East gives it domestic credibility as a government that can manage the new and rapidly shifting landscape.

In terms of foreign politics, part of the deal was payback and part calculation.  The deal with Hamas to release Palestinian prisoners (some from Fatah) undercuts Fatah’s claim to speak for the divided Palestinian people.  Hamas opposed the PA decision to take the statehood issue to the UN (because it amounted to an implicit recognition of Israel); this is part of Israel’s response to Abbas.  You put us in a diplomatic bind; we do the same to you.  But also there may be a sense in some Israeli circles that Hamas is a better opponent than Fatah.  As long as Hamas refuses to accept the two state solution, if Hamas replaces Fatah as the leader of the Palestinians, Israel won’t be under so much pressure to return to negotiations at which it fears it will have to make concessions without making any gains.

Getting a relationship, however difficult, with Hamas on track also reduces tension with Turkey and Egypt.  Both of those countries look to be improving relations with Hamas as part of the regional political shift.  To some degree they are competing to be Hamas’ closest international ally.  For the Turks, becoming the acknowledged ‘big brother’ of the Palestinians supports their claim to be the leaders of the Sunni world.  For the Egyptians, worried about the future of Sinai, it is important to keep Gaza and Hamas under their thumb.

Both Egypt and Turkey want to nip the Iran-Hamas relationship in the bud; Israel probably would like to see Hamas separated from Iran even if there is a price to be paid in terms of reducing Gaza’s economic isolation.  A pragmatic deal with Hamas that involves a cease fire and an economic opening of some kind reduces Israel’s problems with both Turkey and Egypt, and has some prospect of keeping Hamas off the warpath.

Looked at in this wider view, the Shalit deal makes more sense.  Israel’s goal is not a peace treaty with the Palestinians at this point, but managing co-existence with as little violence and harm as possible.  A cold truce with Hamas in a less-isolated Gaza, with Turkey and Egypt in various ways helping to police it, has attractions for all parties. It leaves Fatah isolated and sidelines the Obama administration; from the Israeli point of view that would be a feature, not a bug.

Could this be the new direction of Middle East diplomacy?

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  • Fred

    I don’t question that one Jew is worth 1000 Palestinians (at least), but I still think Israel made a mistake. Why on earth would they trust Hamas to live up to any “pragmatic deal”?

  • Earl of Sandwich

    The best move is to get Shalit back and renege on the deal. That way Israel destroys its creditability to cave in in the future.

  • Luke Lea

    Then there is the symbolism: 1000 Palestinians = 1 Israeli. If I were Palestinian I would oppose such a swap on principle, as an insult to my dignity.

  • Kris

    Earl of Sandwich (#2):

    !!! Yours is by far the best comment I have read on this whole depressing affair.

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