Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Israel's Gamble in a Prisoner Swap

David Makovsky
November 23, 2009 (first post)

The New York Times convened an online panel of three Middle East experts to discuss the implications of a potential prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.The following is a contribution by Washington Institute Ziegler distinguished fellow David Makovsky, director of the Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. Read the entire discussion on the Times's website. Different Perspectives
With the help of German and Egyptian mediation, Israel and Hamas are trying to broker a deal that would end the 3 1/2-year captivity of Gilad Shalit, reportedly in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. In Israel, there are four different clusters of policymakers weighing the move. Their interests may vary, even though outwardly they will present a united front.

The first group is the cabinet. These are politicians who have born the brunt of the public campaign urging that anything and everything be done to ensure Sergeant Shalit's release. This public campaign for one soldier's release has been huge, which is not surprising in a small country where army service is compulsory and many parents feel that it could have just as easily been their son captured. Thus, these elected politicians will support a deal for Sergeant Shalit, as they tend to be the most sensitive to public opinion and will put a premium on the political windfall that could accrue to them.

The second group is the Israel Defense Forces. The Israeli military has strongly advocated for Sergeant Shalit's release, since it tell parents that Israel will leave no stone unturned to ensure that any soldier is returned home. This is designed to keep public morale high.

The third group might be less enthusiastic for a Shalit deal, however. This is the Shin Bet, which is responsible for providing intelligence on terror threats coming from the West Bank and Gaza. If many Palestinian prisoners are released, this is bound to increase the number of threats. Moreover, it will enable Hamas to claim that they too will not leave a stone unturned until those who perpetrate violence are released, and by doing so gain new recruits. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, who is widely believed to have successfully counseled outgoing premier Ehud Olmert to reject the last negotiation with Hamas earlier this year.

Then there is a fourth group composed of Israeli policymakers working within Israel's National Security Council, Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister's Office, which is contemplating a completely separate dimension to the issue, namely, the impact of the deal on the prospects of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas. It is interesting that there are reports that the National Security Council is being circumvented in these negotiations. If consulted, these people will want to know how Hamas will use a Shalit deal to reshape the Palestinian internal balance of power. Won't Hamas be able to say that kidnapping is vindicated because it produces better results than Mr. Abbas's methods, to whom such high profile prisoners have not been released? If Hamas is currently low in the polls, won't it be able to use this release as a springboard and force elections on its terms and thereby force Mr. Abbas to make good on his threats to not run again and resign?

This cluster of policymakers knows well that Palestinian politics is often driven by conspiracy theories and this release will be used to press an improbable idea: Israel wants Hamas to succeed. Therefore, this cluster may wonder -- if the deal cannot be stopped given its domestic popularity -- whether a counterbalancing move toward Mr. Abbas can be made that will be just as significant.

Perhaps this could be something major like coming up with a timetable that enables Israeli security forces to withdraw from West Bank cities. The irony is that such a timetable is imaginable now given the improved security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority's security forces during the last year. But if so many Hamas prisoners are released, will such a timetable become unattainable in the future?

Given that Mr. Abbas's future is very much on Washington's mind, one would hope that the Obama Administration is being consulted at this key juncture before developments and their possible implications take their own course.

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