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18.10.2011

Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- October 17, 2011

October 17, 2011 10:09 AM |

Q. Israel and Hamas have agreed to exchange more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit? Why now, after more than five years of negotiating?

A. The primary reasons for the timing appear to have less to do with negotiating concessions–though both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Hamas appear to have made last-minute concessions–and more to do with the regional strategic issues that set the scene for the deal-clinching concessions. Both Netanyahu and Hamas are interested in lowering the prestige of Fateh and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, following the seeming success of Abbas’ recent initiative at the United Nations, which both oppose. The prisoner exchange does precisely that, particularly in light of the Israel-Hamas agreement not to release Fateh leader Marwan Barghouti.

Then too, both Hamas and Netanyahu appear to have acted now out of concern lest coming developments in the Arab revolutionary wave constrain their room for maneuver in negotiating a prisoner exchange. Hamas’ welcome in Damascus has been negatively affected by its refusal to openly support the Assad regime against the heavily Islamist opposition. On the other hand, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt gave Hamas good reason to comply with Cairo’s mediating efforts. ¬†For his part, Netanyahu stated openly that he feared lest negative developments in the region constrain his freedom of negotiation.

Finally, in view of the failure of Israeli intelligence to find a way to free Shalit unilaterally and by force, a lopsided swap was inevitable. No Israeli government could afford to allow Shalit to grow old in a Hamas prison. In this sense, the swap also reflects an intelligence failure.

Q. Does Netanyahu benefit politically from the swap?

A. Assuming the swap does indeed take place and is not sabotaged by elements even more extreme than Hamas (the German mediator involved in the past five years of negotiations has expressed fears that Iran would try to torpedo the Israel-Hamas agreement), then in the short term Netanyahu will almost certainly benefit. The Israeli prime minister can appear as a champion of the IDF ethos of never abandoning a soldier in the field–a very popular basic value that unites Israelis–and of the mutual ties of support that are held to bind all Israelis in the face of adversity.

The swap is also good for Israel’s relations with the transitional military government in Egypt: it may now even produce a far more routine Israeli-Egyptian exchange of criminal and espionage detainees, and has already generated a formal apology by Defense Minister Ehud Barak for the inadvertent killing of Egyptian border guards in a terrorist incident last August. Hopefully, the return of Israel’s ambassador to Cairo (he was called back to Jerusalem after the storming of the embassy a month and a half ago) will now be expedited. But nothing of this necessarily guarantees smooth sailing with the Egyptian junta’s anticipated elected successor.

Moreover, in the longer term there are dangers here. Hamas and other extremists are certain to draw encouragement from this swap to abduct additional Israelis as bargaining chips. (A considerable number of senior Hamas operatives imprisoned in Israel are not included in the Shalit deal.) Once again, we are hearing from a variety of Palestinians that the swap proves that Israel only understands the language of force. If–many strategic observers would say, when–this week’s released terrorists are again involved in the murder of Israelis, the Netanyahu government’s willingness to release so many hard-core terrorists and Hamas leaders in disproportionate exchange for a single soldier will be held against it.

Meanwhile, the entire swap “festival” (particularly in the Israeli media) is accompanied by the anguish and warnings of the families of hundreds of Israelis killed by the terrorists about to be released. Netanyahu, incidentally, is in an unusually advantageous position in dealing with the protests: his brother, Yoni, a national hero, died fighting terrorists at Entebbe in 1976.

Further, if the release in some way leads to any sort of Israeli-Hamas dialogue (over Gaza-Israel border and ceasefire issues, for example), this could come at the expense of Israel’s relationship with the West Bank-based PLO and a possible future peace process, and could complicate Netanyahu’s relationship with the US and the EU. The swap certainly enhances Hamas’ position in Hamas-Fateh reconciliation negotiations. In an unlikely worst case scenario, Hamas’ boosted prestige, thanks to the swap, helps it take over the West Bank and effectively eliminate the Palestinian candidate for peace with Israel.

Thus does the fate of a single soldier seemingly embody heavy strategic contradictions for Israel.

One way Netanyahu could head off some of the negative consequences of the swap is to promulgate a new and much tougher Israeli negotiating policy regarding future abductions of Israelis and a more logical policy regarding prisoner release for humanitarian or political reasons.

Q. Can you elaborate on this last point?

A. Several years ago, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak appointed a prestigious commission headed by former High Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar to propose such a policy that would, in effect, bind the hands of future Israeli governments confronted by demands from hostage-takers. Shamgar’s recommendations were deliberately kept secret so as not to prejudice the negotiations over Shalit, which were already underway. Now is the time to unveil them and catalyze a serious discussion and even legislation on the issue.

Q. Can you offer examples of the negative consequences of not having such a binding policy?

A. Here are three. First, at the tactical level, the Olmert government, when confronted with the Shalit abduction, made the mistake of suggesting to Hamas that it name its price for Shalit. The result was a Hamas demand for around 1,000 Palestinian prisoners that Israel was never able, in the course of five years of talks, to reduce. Had Olmert opened the negotiating by making his own offer of, say, one Palestinian in exchange for Shalit and explaining that his hands were tied by Israeli law from acting otherwise, the ensuing haggling might have ended up on a far lower number. This suggests, too, that it’s time for (paradoxically) Israel to determine that an Israeli is worth not 1,000 Arabs but one Arab.

Second, at the strategic level, both the Olmert and the Netanyahu governments in effect tried to hold the entire Gaza Strip and its population of 1.5 million Palestinians hostage to the fate of a single Israeli soldier, Shalit. Thus, the Israeli economic siege of Gaza and even the 2008-2009 Cast Lead military campaign were explained at least in part as a means of leveraging Shalit’s release. This policy not only failed; it proved counterproductive in terms of Israel’s international profile and relations with countries like Turkey. Now the Hamas leadership is hinting that it expects Israel to roll back the economic blockade yet further in the aftermath of the Shalit swap, conceivably as a part of the deal that has not been publicized.

Finally, Israel needs a more rational prisoner release policy that holds out the prospect of eventual release for terrorists under circumstances other than swaps for abducted Israelis. This would reduce the incentive to carry out further abductions. It is a mistake for a country whose sentencing and paroling policies for its own citizen-criminals and even for Jewish terrorists are as liberal as Denmark’s, to refuse to hold out any hope of release for Arab terrorists whose offences are, in at least some cases, no worse. If Ami Popper, a Jew who murdered seven defenseless Palestinians, can marry and enjoy weekend vacations after ten years in prison and can look forward to repeated sentence reductions by the president of Israel, some modicum of this approach could be applied to Palestinians as well.

On the other hand, even if Israel does seemingly “bind its own hands” regarding future hostage negotiations, there can never be an absolute guarantee that the government of the day won’t fold when confronted by popular pressures to buy the release of Israeli hostages at an extravagant price. Netanyahu, after all, was in the past a champion of a non-negotiation policy–a fruit of his self-styled expertise on terrorism. In this sense, the Shalit deal represents a complete ideological capitulation on his part.

Q. Did the five-year delay in bringing about Shalit’s release reflect a lapse or lack of forcefulness on the part of the international community as well as mistakes by Israel?

A. Undoubtedly, Israel is held to a higher standard of prisoner treatment by the Red Cross and other international human rights institutions than Hamas. Various UN agencies like UNWRA, and countries like Norway, Turkey and Russia, not to mention Egypt and additional Arab states, have maintained a variety of diplomatic and other contacts with Hamas over the past five years without conditioning them on Shalit’s release or even on a single visit by the Red Cross. If Israel itself had exercised more rational policies regarding Hamas and Shalit, and had it succeeded in developing a viable peace process with the West Bank-based PLO, it might have been in a better position to call these countries and institutions to task.

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