Monday, October 24, 2011

The Shalit Deal Is Not Really A Victory For Hamas

We got back to Jerusalem last week, coincidentally, the very hour Gilad Shalit was finally reunited with his family. Our own pulled themselves away from the television to receive us, though greeting him vicariously was, for all the obvious reasons, more preoccupying than greeting us in the flesh. We watched, too, captivated, before giving in to sleep.

Shalit has been a symbol for so long that it was touching to see the poise of the pale young man, particularly during the spontaneous interview forced upon him by Egyptian television. He exuded a kind of decency, not entirely a surprise given how winning (and devoted) his parents have been throughout this ordeal. When asked the kicker question, namely, could he imagine the feelings of released Palestinians, he answered tactfully that he could, but that he hoped they would not return to acts of violence against Israelis. He said that he missed most of all during his captivity not being in conversation with people. As I said, decency.

The same could not be said about many of the reporters who covered the event, but nothing surprising there either. Perhaps the award for tactlessness went to Channel Two's Friday anchor Yair Lapid, the son of former reporter-turned-politician Tommy Lapid, who himself gestures toward a political career at times. Lapid was interviewing a spokesman for the Palestine Authority in Ramallah (I wish I could remember his name, but jet-lag wins) and asked something like: "Aren't you sometimes jealous of Israel, that we value human life so much that we trade one for a thousand?"

It fell to this spokesman to say, yes, he admires Israelis for making the trade, but also to remind Lapid that Arab families value the lives of their children, too (and that, though this is hardly a reasonable way to keep moral books, during the past ten years ten Palestinians died for every Israeli death).

PERHAPS THE MOST common assumption in the press is that Hamas wins as a result of the deal, and, indeed, street demonstrators in Gaza held signs suggesting that more kidnappings would lead to more freed Palestinian prisoners. There have even been rumblings that the heads of the IDF and army intelligence are adamantly arguing for freeing another 500 prisoners to the PA's Mahmud Abbas simply to give him a victory, too.

But though a new release of prisoners to Abbas may be a good idea, I think this awarding of a victory to Hamas is short-sighted. The deal, like all bilateral deals, implies a common desire to look forward rather than backward.  Otherwise, how to justify releasing people who've committed heinous murders for one rather callow soldier? And if people are looking forward, Hamas does not have much to offer--unless the only thing to look forward to is stalemate and a fight to the finish. (In that case, the question of who gains from the deal is irrelevant.) Does anyone really think Gazans have the stomach for a new kidnapping and a new retaliatory war? Has Hezbollah tried another kidnapping since 2006? (Before the exchange, Abbas was even more popular in Gaza than in the West Bank.)

If, on the other hand, the deal portends both an ongoing effort to restart diplomatic efforts and a more or less normal Palestinian rivalry among incumbent movements, any step toward greater calm can only help Fatah. For Fatah, not Hamas, is the Palestinian state-builder, the symbol and manager of international diplomacy and economic development. If the Israeli government does indeed internalize the idea that Abbas and his secular nationalists need help just now, some kind of peace process may be rekindled. It cannot be an accident that Netanyahu offered a freeze of government building in the territories immediately after the deal--a hollow offer, since almost all building is by private contractors, but an offer nevertheless.

Besides, just think of what will happen if, as seems likely, the deal will end the closure of Gaza and West Bank business people will enter Gaza more easily, renewing steps toward the economic integration of the two territories. How does Hamas gain from that? How does Hamas gain either from Israel calming its relations with Egypt, which was central to the negotiation?

(A footnote: Palestinians will argue, not without plausibility, that the swap was actually symmetrical because any member of an occupation army is guilty of crimes under international law. And who knows what Shalit believed about IDF cruelties to Palestinian civilians before his capture. But even by the standards of the Goldstone Commission, a common soldier in the IDF, born long after the territories were conquered, is hardly a war criminal. A man who, whatever the political provocation, organizes a suicide bombing of a restaurant or launches a rocket into a civilian area is. Then again, a great many of the Palestinians released from prison were not murderers or war criminals either.)

NONE OF THIS is to suggest that negotiations will succeed if they are started. I'll argue at length in the December Harper's that without Israelis coming to terms with the various underlying meanings of the Palestinian right of return, and Palestinians coming to terms with the various underlying meanings of Israel as a "Jewish national home"--without, moreover, the confederative relations implied by "coming to terms"--no lasting peace deal can be struck. Still, the Shalit deal can only be seen as a positive force toward reconciliation, especially if Netanyahu moves quickly to capitalize on the solidarity and high-emotion evoked by seeing sons coming home to longing families. This, after all, is the fugitive point of peace.

And since I've had some skeptical things to say about the Israeli press, I ought to compliment one commentator, somebody I've poked at in this blog in the past, namely, Haaretz's Ari Shavit, who appeared on Channel One Friday evening and said just what the moment called for. Netanyahu, Shavit argued, had crossed a line in doing this deal, but he dare not underestimate what he achieved. He should now either accept Hamas as an interlocutor or move quickly to help shore up the Fatah-led PA with a serious diplomatic offer. The worst thing to do is nothing.

He was joined on the panel by the always rational Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, who took things another step. If the Quartet, Farkash said, is able to create an agenda for new negotiations, Israel should do what it has to do to get the talks started and put a genuine offer on the table. As I said, intelligence.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Avishai, while I am usually a big fan of your writing, I felt this piece just wasn't on the mark. You say that you feel those awarding "victory" to Hamas suffer from short-sightedness, and that the deal signifies a "looking forward" attitude for both governments.

With all due respect, Dr. Avishai, I think you now that is not the case. The Netanyahu government has no desire to ever negotiate with Hamas, and this deal was not "looking forward towards peace" as it was "looking forwards towards some sophisticated realpolitik". The Netanyahu coalition was furious at the PA for bringing the statehood resolution to the PA, and also know that the status quo stalemate benefits them as they can continue to create facts on the ground.

So if you are Netanyahu, and would like the status quo to continue, what would you do? You strengthen Hamas so you can continue to have a more legitimate reason of not coming to the table.

You mention correctly that Hamas has little to offer, but after this 1027:1 prisoner swap, they are looking quite good in many Palestinian's eyes - I don't think that can be denied.

So, in essence, I do think this strengthened Hamas, and consequently, hurt the peace process. While I do believe that Israel should definitely negotiate with a unified Palestinian govt., there is no doubt that a stronger Hamas makes it more difficult. Netanyahu is one sly man.

Potter said...

What is winning?

Could winning for Hamas simply be ( or would they settle for) having a seat at the table and having a legitimate voice in a Palestinian State? Recognition as legitimate? Would that suffice? Doesn’t this deal further such a goal?

Is annihilating Hamas still Israel’s goal? If so does Hamas win by showing that it is a legitimate force and to be dealt with?

Does Israel win by helping divide Palestinians? Are they really more divided by this deal anyway?

This deal, standing alone, seems to be encouraging prisoner taking and swapping, a game whereby both sides can prove to their constituencies that they are achieving something even when that achievement is shallow; the feeling is high but how long lived ?

Israel keeps many prisoners. So deal had to be lopsided? Or did Hamas win on the numbers? The numbers shows who is weak and who is strong. Israel can collect more prisoners, Hamas can demand more. Both sides can claim victory and moral superiority.

Israeli’s say. distastefully, they value their own more than Palestinians do their own regardless of whether true. It's psychological war again: dehumanization of the other side, soothing and nationalistic. But if the sides were equal powers, not a resistance movement against a state, Hamas could capture as many Israeli prisoners and the deal would be a thousand for a thousand, or one for one... or no deal until the very end. But Hamas now can say that Israel paid a very high price for Shalit, one that puts Israeli's at risk.

So Israel, why not risk for genuine peace; not a better risk to take?

Hamas has what to offer with “stalemate”. Stalemate could cause a lot of trouble. Stalemate (“status quo”) though, might suit some on both sides who believe in it—like Netanyahu.

I thought this was a selfishly motivated move all around and not for peace, not yet for peace. Even though I am happy to see Shalit home never-the-less, I am cynical about Netanyahu.

So I agree with anonymous above.

Potter said...

Carlo Strenger has an excellent opinion piece in Haaretz this weekend:

The MIssed Opportunity to Free Marwan Barghouti" (... and why both Hamas and Netanyahu made a deal that suited each very well.).

Y. Ben-David said...

Condi Rice's memoirs-
The Palestinians will NOT compromise AT ALL on the "Right of Return" and they are NOT interested in a peace agreement:

Potter said...


I am so glad you found that bit. Then, of course, it must be so. And of course Israel is completely justified then in continuing the settlements.

Y. Ben-David said...

Condi had a front row view of the negotiations, more than Dr Avishai did, so I would place great weight on her version of events. When Avishai interviewed them, they put spin on their description of what happened, she saw it in real time.

Potter said...

Ben-David- Somehow I suspect that you would place great weight on any view that was in accord with your own.

I have to look at the what Condi and the Bush Administration accomplished: bupkis with re an I-P peace deal and much worse overall in the ME. They were a disaster. We will deal with the effects for a long long time. So go read the memoirs...

Palestinians certainly should not give up their ROR UNTIL they have a just and believable compromise.

I don't take tough bargaining positions as anything final either. Holding onto the ROR firmly is a bargaining position. What else have they got other than their rights? Abbas, though, has said MANY times that Palestinians do not want to change the demographics in Israel.

Y. Ben-David said...

So when the Palestinians tell their own people that they will never compromise on the ROR they are ultimately lying to them? And that the "millions" of refugees who will be betrayed by a compromise will take it lying down?

Potter said...

Bear in mind The Palestinians never rejected the Olmert offer but were looking at the prospects and asking questions while making their own proposals which were apparently ignored by Condi according to Erekat. Of course you can call Abbas and Erekat liars which will end the conversation.

Regarding Condi Rice and what she apparently said about the P's and ROR.

my bold:

Erekat also stated the Palestinian plan included forming an international body under the auspices of the United Nations that would solve the refugee issue by offering a set of options to those seeking return to the land.

Erekat also claimed he is certain that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice passed on an 11-page document summarizing Olmert’s proposal to the Obama administration, while completely ignoring that of the Palestinians.

Erekat said he traveled to Washington D.C. a few months after Obama entered office in order to continue negotiations with the proposals submitted by Olmert and the Palestinians as starting points, but that Netanyahu “threw out the proposals” upon assuming premiership of Israel.

It looks like those who want a certain outcome most favorable to Israel, or a "status quo" and who would rather say things are stuck are either deaf or purposely ignoring Palestinian offers and openings to discuss the remaining blockages.

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