The Shalit Tape and the Sharm Summit: Competing for Attention

Today’s Sharm el-Sheikh Summit of the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority has been somewhat overshadowed by the release of audio tape of the Israeli Corporal being held in Gaza.  It is exactly one year to the day since the capture of Gilad Shalit — and the tape put out by the Izz a-Din Al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas was the first unequivocal sign of life.  Understandably, this story has been competing with the four-way Summit for Israeli media attention.

The signal from Hamas was clear: we are here, and if you want results, you have to deal with us, not your friends in Sharm.  Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamed spoke live to Israel Channel 2 News from Gaza and, in Hebrew, called for the resumption of negotiations for a prisoner exchange.  This immediately set off the intended debate in Israel — to deal or not to deal with Hamas, albeit over the limited agenda of Gilad Shalit.

Support came from unexpected quarters, such as Shas leader and Minister Eli Yishai.  Meanwhile Labor Party Minister, and Bully-in-Chief, Fuad Ben-Eliezer ruled out talks unequivocally.  Yitzhak Rabin’s former Chief of Staff Eitan Haber reminded Israel Army Radio listeners of the famous prisoner exchange deal of May 1985 when 1,150 Palestinian prisoners were traded for three Israelis.  He contrasted this to the tragic, failed military effort to free Nachshon Waxman, under Rabin, in 1994.  Haber’s message was clear: cut the deal.

The family of Gilad Shalit called on PM Olmert to “do what it takes or to stand down from his office.” By the way, Shalit’s family, through the entire ordeal, have come across as remarkably dignified, stoical, and smart.

Hamas was sending a message not only to the Israeli decision-makers and public, but also to their own public and the other leaders gathered at Sharm, Abbas included.  And the Hamas-Gaza reality was, of course, the ever present absent at Sharm.

Sharm, of course, played out largely according to the script.  All the leaders took the pledge of peace — with precious little in concrete terms on how it might be achieved.  Israeli PM Olmert provided a mini-surprise by announcing his intention to release 250 Fatah prisoners in addition to gradually releasing the Palestinian tax monies being held.  This was the bare minimum necessary to lend any credence to his new mantra of helping strengthen President Abbas.  But Olmert has rejected removing IDF checkpoints, real easing of the West Bank closures, or political negotiations on a permanent status peace.  The agreement to establish an Israeli-Palestinian Committee to look at re-deploying the IDF to September 2000 positions does not sound promising at all.

Nathan Brown at Carnegie, in his highly recommended new report, has called this “less of the same.”  Four points on this:

(1)  It is the continued and active IDF presence that is deciding things in favor of Fatah and against Hamas in the West Bank.  That is why the IDF is in no hurry to redeploy and has vetoed any major easing of closures and movement restrictions.

(2)  The latest set of “help the moderates” gestures continues the back-slide in this approach — the less of the same.  If one looks back over the last years — the Mitchell Report recommendations, the Tenet plan, the Zinni plan, the Dayton benchmarks — each time less is being offered.  As the challenge becomes greater, the tools being deployed are even more emaciated.

(3)  The Olmert-Fatah prisoner release to Abbas will go to the Cabinet for approval.  Olmert will be criticized and he will expend political capital getting this through.  The argument will be: “why release prisoners for nothing?  If we’re releasing at least get Shalit in return.”  Abbas, by the way, will be lambasted for taking a sectarian stand on the prisoner release issue (i.e. Fatah only), Hamas will loftily declare that their prisoner demands are for prisoners from all factions.  Olmert will explain to America and the world what a big step he has taken and a political price he has paid — adding for good measure that he cannot be expected to do more.  It’s the old formula.  Sharon used it but he had a strategy: destroy the Palestinian national movement and viable two-state option (OK, a strategy I think was disastrous).  Olmert seems to have no strategy — and that’s a real problem.

(4)  Remember, it’s too late to achieve progress with Abbas and Fatah alone.

Zvi Barel, writing in advance of the summit, accurately predicts these points in his “best to refrain from kissing this time” op-ed.

Can the “president of all the Palestinians” compose a list of prisoners that includes only Fatah members and thus become the president of the Villages Association, an entity appointed by Israel?

The attempt to lock Abbas into an embrace of “no-going back to power-sharing” with Hamas, and to push irreconcilability the Palestinian political divisions is extremely dangerous and not so much high risk as almost guaranteed to fail.

One slightly off-message leader at Sharm , and by extension, more realistic, was the host, President Mubarak.  He gave the slightest of hints that a break with the division policy may be in the offing.  Mubarak stated:  “There is an urgent need to end internal Palestinian clashes and restore dialogue.”

Egyptian Ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy, made a similar point to Wolf Blitzer on CNN Late Edition Sunday:

We will push the Palestinians to talk together under the right circumstances… Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue has to emerge.

Wolf’s other guests — Israeli Ambassador Salai Meridor and Dennis Ross — were in a very different place.  It has also been reported that Ismail Haniyeh spoke on the phone with Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman — in part, repeating the Hamas offer to restart unity talks.  The Egyptians and like-minded Arab States, including Saudi Arabia, will move cautiously, but the division is likely to become increasingly untenable.

The official Israeli head is still deep in the sand on this one, though not nearly as deep as Washington’s.  The Hamas audio tape today was a message, if a deal can be reached and a ceasefire developed from Gaza, then Jerusalem’s ears ought to start to emerge from the sand.

Here’s what retired General Shlomo Gazit had to say on all this in today’s Ma’ariv (translation):

It currently appears that Hamas leaders are adopting a more pragmatic approach.  They do not want political, economic or military battle.  But the immediate future is primarily up to Israel.

Just a few days have gone by since the establishment of Hamastan, but we have already seen how Israel responds on two levels.  The moment it took control of Gaza, Hamas declared a unilateral ceasefire with Israel.  For over a week, not a single Qassam rocket was fired at Sderot; but, after just one day in the job, the defense minister approved a new operation against wanted terror suspects in Khan Yunis.  Five Palestinians were killed and four were injured and, unsurprisingly, the very next day the Qassam attacks on Sderot started again.  On the diplomatic front, Israel continues to pin all of its hopes on Abu Mazin and his Fateh movement.

The current Israeli policy is a failure and is the opposite of the siege policy that we implemented until now.  The Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip will not support Fateh; a movement that has passed its prime.  It will certainly not support a leadership that has the backing of Israel and the United States.  This is surely the time for Olmert and Israel to reevaluate the situation.