Sorry, folks: There's no wider significance to the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. Middle East peace is as far away as ever.
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.
There's also the problem of Syria, where Hamas's external leadership has hung its shingle for some time now -- but for how much longer? With Bashar al-Assad's regime likely headed south, Hamas needs other options. And to hedge its bets, why not move closer to Egypt? After all, it's Cairo that determines whether the Gaza-Palestine border is open, and it was the Egyptians who mediated this accord. After the failure of the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement -- also brokered by Egypt -- it was important that the Egyptians pull this one off. And Hamas was under pressure to help.
Israel's motives in doing the deal are much simpler to understand. The determination to retrieve soldiers left behind on the battlefield -- dead or alive -- is a commitment deeply grounded in Israeli culture and history. Of course it's also driven by political calculation, particularly with the current prime minister. Netanyahu badly wanted Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen who spied on the U.S. Navy on Israel's behalf, released during his first stint in office; he brought heavy pressure to bear on President Bill Clinton during the 1998 Wye River summit negotiations with the Palestinians. It was only CIA director George Tenet's threat to resign that likely stayed Clinton's hand.
Netanyahu has been under enormous popular pressure for failing to cut a deal to secure Shalit's release -- his parents have waged a relentless media campaign on his behalf, with camp-outs, marches, and rallies around the country -- though the prime minister will likely take some political shots from the security establishment for going ahead with it. But the Israelis clearly calculated that waiting only increased the possibility that continued turmoil in the region and splits within Hamas might have lost Shalit. There's no doubt that no matter how good Israeli intelligence, the Shin Bet must have been concerned that Shalit might have been taken out of Gaza, even transferred to Iran.
But let's be clear. The deal changes almost nothing in the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Had the deal included high-profile Palestinian prisoners such as Marwan Barghouti, a former Fatah leader with a national reputation, or Ahmad Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it would have had much more significance. Letting Barghouti out would have been a direct challenge (and threat) to Abbas's leadership -- a clear effort by Israel to divide the PLO that he heads.
No, this deal takes care of business, period -- business that Hamas and Israel needed to get done. And though it does make clear that these two parties can do deals together and may well presage a period of stability (neither side wants a war), it has no bearing on peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on with little prospect of serious negotiations, let alone a conflict-ending accord.
On this one, what you see is what you get: An organization that has milked a kidnapped Israeli soldier for all it can get and an Israeli government that can't like the deal but is really compelled to cut it have found some common ground. The Israeli-Palestinian issue rarely offers up agreement on anything. Pocket this one and buckle your seat belts; this conflict is bound to get a lot worse before it gets worse.
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