First, Prospects For Peace is back after a summer go-slow, so watch this space. Second, today is the twenty-first birthday of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit who is being held in Gaza by a group affiliated with Hamas, and the marking of this anniversary has brought the broader question of dealing with Hamas back into focus. Events have been held in Israel today to mark Shalit's birthday with posters going up throughout the country, a rally in Tel Aviv, and the placing of a large birthday cake in the center of Rabin Square. The issue featured prominently in today's Israeli newspapers and has continued to be mentioned throughout the day. Ben Kaspit, writing in the daily Ma'ariv summed up the dilemma that has characterized the discussion of the issue (translated from the Hebrew):
What is worst of all is the knowledge that it is possible to bring him home. There is a price for it. The price is hard, tough, almost impossible to pay, but it exists... Everyone has his own answer, his own solution, and in the face of all these is one Israeli soldier in a dark cellar, dank and isolated, cut off from all connection from the outside world, counting his days and perhaps not even aware that he has a birthday today or whether he will have one next year.
The tone is emotional, but the policy question is unavoidable. On June 25 of 2006, Shalit was captured near the Gaza security fence by members of the Popular Resistance Committees. The Committees are an alliance of Palestinian factions in which Hamas plays a decisive role, and as efforts began to secure a negotiated release of Shalit it became clear that Hamas was the address. Negotiations have been conducted between Israel and Hamas through various intermediaries, notably the Egyptians, and, occasionally, in direct meetings between Israeli security officials and Hamas prison leaders being held in Israeli jails.
Since June 10 of this year (when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip), an additional complicating factor has been added: namely, what does any negotiation and prospective deal mean for the broader policy towards Hamas? The answer thus far has been to effectively place the negotiations on a slow track, something which led Noam Shalit (Gilad's father) to accuse Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today of not doing enough to secure his son's release.
There are, then, two questions: the immediate price to be paid for Shalit's release, and the prospects for establishing new rules of the game in the stand-off with Hamas.
The question of price is one that Israel has dealt with in the past. In the most famous (or infamous) prisoner exchange deal, 1,150 arab prisoners were released for three Israeli soldiers in a negotiation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - General Command led by Ahmed Jibril, a deal that was mediated by former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. The Israeli Defense Minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, in defending the deal, stated,
Since 1968 we have basically pursued the same policy... every government has entered into negotiations and paid a price... The circumstances and the numbers changed, but the principles didn't. When there is no military option, and after all the possibilities have been carefully checked, there is no choice but to enter into negotiations and pay a price. I don't believe that any Israeli government can ignore its responsibility to its citizens if they are taken hostage, and certainly it cannot ignore the fate of its soldiers, who were ordered onto the battlefield and who fell into terrorist hands.
More recently in January of 2004, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with the support of his cabinet (including then Minister Netanyahu), exchanged 430 Lebanese, Palestinian, and Arab prisoners for one Israeli businessman and ex-colonel Elhanan Tenenbaum and the remains of three IDF soldiers in a deal with Hizbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The strong feeling is that if it was only a question of price the deal would have been concluded long ago, but then comes the Hamas factor. Back to Ma'ariv commentator Ben Kaspit: "the main thing is that Hamas has to be thrown a lifeboat, recognizing its right and ability to govern."
It is surely no coincidence that the head of Hamas's political bureau Khaled Meshaal gave an interview yesterday in Damascus to CNN's Nic Robertson in which he discussed the Gilad Shalit issue in detail. In Meshaal's words:
As I said, we agreed with the Egyptian mediations and we responded to the Egyptian proposals. And three months ago we reached a principle deal and we started the application of the deal. And we had been asked to submit a list of 350 names. We submitted the list to the Egyptians and they submitted it to Olmert. But Olmert rejected the list and he stopped the negotiations. (CNN, Aug. 27, 2007)
From their own perspective, Hamas views Shalit as one of the key cards that they have to play, especially in the context of an increasingly isolated and forgotten Gaza. Rather than a narrow prisoner exchange deal, some now consider that a potentially broader package is on the table. It might look something like this: Shalit's return and the release of Palestinian prisoners would be stage 1 in a kind of Israel-Hamas mini-armistice or renewed hudna that in its subsequent stages might include a cessation of all hostile activity directed at Israel emanating from Gaza, a suspension of Israeli military actions targetting Gaza, and easing of the aggressive closure policy against the Gaza Strip, and new arragements via designated third parties at the Gaza border corssings. At the moment, neither the Israeli leadership nor Palestinian President Abbas seem keen on pursuing this option. As efforts to launch a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian political process gather pace towards a possible November peace summit, the appetite for a Shalit release deal or a broader Gaza-Israel ceasefire is waning even further. The logic behind this is that the further one walks down the political path with Abbas, the more Hamas should be punished, Shalit becomes an unfortunate victim of that policy.
To me, that logic seems deeply flawed, and it should actually be applied in reverse. Namely, the closer one gets to a possible peace effort in November, the more one should be striving to lock-in a Hamas ceasefire and to reduce the incentives for Hamas to undermine such an effort. The starting point would be to negotiate (via intermediaries) a package that would begin with the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. The opposite approach even further stacks the odds against anything helpful or sustainable emerging from the November process.
So sensible policy and the Rabin principle on prisoner exchanges should both point in the direction of a twenty-first birthday present for Gilad Shalit of resuming negotiations for his release.