The five-year saga that will likely lead to the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit -- in one of those bizarrely asymmetrical prisoner exchanges that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so tragic and intriguing -- has all the hallmarks of a John le Carré thriller.
There's no way you can put half a dozen intelligence services, including the Germans, the Israelis, two sets of Palestinians (Hamas and Fatah), the Turks, the Egyptians, and the Americans, in the same story and not tell a complex tale. No doubt the story line was also worthy at times of the Keystone Kops, with overplayed hands, crazy demands, and missed signals and opportunities. Like so many other features of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, this deal could probably have been done much earlier.
But now that it is done (or almost so), what exactly does it all mean? First, let's not have any illusions here: The deal for Shalit was self-contained; it offers no first phase of a broader political deal between Israel and Hamas, no Act I in some kind of modus-vivendi play with a happy ending to break open the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Any such plan would prove to be the key to an empty room. With no deal in sight on the big issues between Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, why would anyone believe there's room to compromise between Israel and Hamas, the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism? The region is very uncertain right now; neither the Israelis nor Hamas are open to taking big risks. Stability, the avoidance of conflict, the pursuit of narrower agendas in that uncertain environment are a different story. And that's what's driving this train. This is transactional, not transformational diplomacy.
For Hamas, the deal makes enormous sense. The organization is increasingly unpopular in Gaza, having failed to deliver a better economy, freedom of movement, or relief from taxes; it needed a lift. (The scenes of Gazans celebrating the swap deal suggest that it worked.) And what a great time to move. As Abbas grabs the center stage at the United Nations with a faux statehood initiative full of symbols, Hamas delivers concrete gains at home. We can't underestimate the resonance of the prisoner issue in Palestinian society. It's huge, and this release -- probably the largest ever -- will touch thousands of friends and family members of those released.