international analysis and commentary

The Shalit deal and the new regional context

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On October 18th, under massive media attention, the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was freed in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – among them some responsible for major terror attacks in Israel. Initially, there was much relief on both sides. The Israeli soldier had not been allowed visits by the Red Cross in violation of international law during his more than five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians, on the other hand, are waiting for about 6,000 prisoners to be released from Israeli jails. Of these Palestinians, 264 are under administrative detention, i.e. in prison without charge and trial. Furthermore, some minors have even been tried in military courts: according to a report released by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, from 2005 to 2010 at least 835 minors “were arrested and tried in military courts in the West Bank on charges of stone throwing. Thirty-four of them were aged 12-13, 255 were 14-15 and 546 were 16-17. Only one of the 835 was acquitted; all the rest were found guilty.”

In the face of this, Hamas came under criticism because the list includes so many prisoners who were due to be released soon (many of them should have been released as part of the Oslo Peace Accords) and because the big shots were not on the list, most prominently Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti, but also Ahmad Sa’adat from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), as well as central Hamas leaders like Ibrahim Hamed (Hamas military commander in the West Bank). Furthermore, Sam Bahour, one of Palestine’s most influential businessmen, clarified that with the content of the agreement, Hamas accepted the deportation of some Palestinians outside of Palestine, which he calls “troubling when you are aware of the core issue of this conflict”.

Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came under attack by members of his own government, which claimed that this was a capitulation to terrorism and a precedent for more kidnappings. He was, however, supported in his decision by the secret services Shin Bet and Mossad, as well as by the Israeli army. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued that procedural rules are needed for dealing with future abductions.

Prisoner swaps have a relatively long history in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; from the 1985 Jibril Agreement to the recent 2008 prisoner exchange with Hezbollah. These deals show that pragmatic negotiations are always possible – even between the most conservative forces of the Palestinian and Israeli societies. Nonetheless, very few Israeli and Palestinian analysts believe that such a step will change something on the ground.

Nazmi Jubeh, director of the History Department at Birzeit University, argued that “the political effects of the deal are very marginal. In a few weeks everything will be forgotten”. Yossi Alpher even claimed that “the prisoner deal reduced the likelihood of a productive Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” According to Alpher “whether by design or accident, in raising the public profile of Hamas the exchange tends to dwarf Fatah and its leader.” Shlomo Brom, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, went further by pointing out that “making this deal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu increased Palestinian mistrust by completely ignoring the needs of his negotiating partner, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and refusing to release Fatah prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti.”

Such analysis is directly connected to another key question: why now? Negotiations had been ongoing for quite some time and at least at one point, in 2009 under the government of Ehud Olmert, a deal seemed in reach. Then Israeli elections brought Netanyahu to power and a solution seemed more far-fetched than ever. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, however, the Middle East is greatly changing.

The Netanyahu government has weakened; firstly, in the wake of the socio-economic protests in Israel, and, secondly, as the government, with its continuing settlement activity, is increasing Israel’s international isolation – which became conspicuous with the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations. Hamas, on its side, had to increase its popularity in the wake of Abbas’s statehood bid: while Abbas’s diplomatic move will most likely be unsuccessful, Hamas is now able to show concrete results when the prisoners arrive in Gaza and the West Bank, and it is expected that Israel will ease the siege on Gaza in the wake of a successful prisoner swap.

Another key player seems to be Egypt. Hamas trusts the new Egyptian government more than it trusted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had suppressed the ideologically close Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak had no interest in fostering an Israel-Hamas deal and increasing the popularity of the Islamic group. With Mubarak gone, Hamas might be re-orienting itself towards Egypt, especially as its leadership, at present located in Damascus, is facing an uncertain future there and might have to find a new home. The deal indeed indicates that it is looking towards the moderate Arab world.

And so this is the elephant in the room: why could the Arab Spring explain the willingness of Netanyahu to negotiate with Hamas, while the same event is not able to trigger peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority or simply stop the ongoing settlement construction? The answer lies within Israel: a prisoner exchange is a relatively small issue, the settlements are not. The current regional structure, especially in light of unabated US backing even in the face of settlement building in East Jerusalem, still seems comfortable enough for Israel not to endanger its fragile domestic balance.

The recent “price tag” attacks on Muslims in Israel (attacks against Palestinian property in revenge for violence against settlers), as well as on the memorial of Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, happened for a reason. They serve as a reminder from the extreme right to the government of what will break loose if the settlements are put on the negotiation table. Netanyahu will not endanger the current status quo with them; he is wed to their ideology in his own government.