Who Gains, Who Loses in Israel-Hamas Prisoner Swap to Free Gilad Shalit?

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Captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is seen in this file still image from video released October 2, 2009 by Israeli television. (Photo: Reuters)

Win-win outcomes are all too rare in the Middle East, but the agreement that will see Hamas free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for a reported 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will allow each of its stakeholders to claim victory.

Details of the deal concluded in Cairo under Egyptian mediation remain sketchy, but it is believed to involve securing Shalit’s release from Hamas captivity in exchange for some 1,000 prisoners — 450 of whom will be named by Hamas, and 550 to be named later on by Israel, and will include as many as 315 men convicted of killing hundreds of Israelis in terror attacks, to whose release the Israelis had strenuously objected in the past. Shalit was seized from the Israeli side of the Gaza boundary in mid-2006. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal said Tuesday the exchange will begin within a week, with 450 Palestinian prisoners, and Shalit, being transferred to Egypt.

Hamas spokesmen claimed Tuesday that among the men to be released is Marwan Barghouti, the popular Fatah leader widely viewed as a potential successor (and quite possibly also rival) to President Mahmoud Abbas. According to some Israeli reports, Barghouti will be required to accept exile from the West Bank. Another powerful symbol among those to be released is the Hamas militant Abdullah Barghouti (no relation), serving 67 life sentences for building bombs used in suicide attacks. (Update: Israel later insisted neither Barghouti would be released.)

(SEE: Photos of the Saga of Gilad Shalit)

If the deal is implemented, there are plenty of political spoils to go around:

* Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will gain the kudos for having done a painful deal to bring home a young man whose captivity had been a source of enduring national anguish and pain. The modest smiles on the faces of his parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, upon hearing the news that their son will finally see the light of day after five years and four months of grueling secret captivity, will be hailed as an iconic moment in Israel.

* For Hamas, the deal will be hailed as a major achievement — having forced the Israelis to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners (of all factions), the Islamist movement will have scored a win on one of the most powerful emotive issues for residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and it will claim to have demonstrated that it was the steadfastness of the “resistance” rather President Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiations and diplomacy that forced Israel to concede. The agreement will serve as a stark reminder of Hamas’ centrality to the Palestinian political equation, despite its absence from levers of power in the Palestinian Authority. The fact that Hamas, rather than Abbas, was able to secure the release of key Fatah prisoners, some of whom had served as many 25 years, will sweeten the victory for the Islamists.

* And for Egypt, which brokered the final deal after German mediation efforts had faltered, it has provided an opportunity to demonstrate to the Israelis (and Americans) as well to the Palestinians that the military junta that replaced President Hosni Mubarak can play a responsible role in mediating positive outcomes.

Needless to say, there’s little political gain in the deal for Abbas, currently on a world tour to boost support for his effort to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority has had no part in negotiating the prisoner swap, and holds no sway over events in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

In Caracas, Abbas told TIME’s Karl Vick, who is traveling with the Palestinian leader on his diplomatic roadshow, that “all in all it is good, of course. To release 1,000 prisoners is good for us, for the families.” He claimed he wasn’t worried if this would boost Hamas, a political rival: “Whether they are with us or against us, they are Palestinians. Any release of any prisoner is in the interest of every Palestinian.”

Still, Abbas is more likely to be hoping that the attention garnered by the prisoner swap passes quickly, to allow his diplomatic quest to reclaim the Palestinian spotlight — although Hamas has no interest in letting that happen.

It’s not yet clear why a deal whose parameters appear to be broadly similar to ones that have been on the table  – and rejected by one side or the other — for the best part of four years now were suddenly acceptable. One of the key sticking points in the recent past has been the question of where freed Palestinian prisoners will live, and whether they will include residents of East Jerusalem. Hamas claims to have prevailed on the latter, but it’s not clear whether the prisoners will be allowed to return to their homes, as the Islamists have insisted, or whether they’ve bowed to the Israeli demand that some of those from the West Bank be transferred to Gaza, and others be required to live in exile. It may be days before those details are disclosed, and also the full list of those to be freed.

Hamas’ circumstances outside of Gaza have certainly become increasingly precarious in the course of the Syrian rebellion, that has jeopardized the movement’s political sanctuary in Damascus. The Assad regime has demanded public support from the Palestinian group, but Hamas has declined to provide that — its own roots in the Muslim Brotherhood give Hamas ties of political kinship with the Syrian chapter of the movement, which is at the forefront of confrontations with the Assad regime. Hamas’ equivocation in the face of the Syrian crisis has drawn punishment from Iran, which has reportedly cut off funding to Gaza, where Hamas has reportedly been unable to pay salaries for months. And some Syrian officials even accuse the moment of directly backing the insurrection. So, Hamas may be looking for new digs, and it behooves the movement’s leadership to make nice with Egypt while it considers its options.

For the Israelis, there was a sense that the rapidly changes in the regional environment that began with the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia last spring could jeopardize prospects for achieving Shalit’s freedom. “We had a fear that the window of opportunity was closing,” Netanyahu said ahead of the Israeli cabinet meeting to discuss the deal. Hamas’ circumstances in Syria were changing, and the Egyptian military regime whose cooperation he praised may not necessarily be a long-term fixture.

And an Egyptian military leadership operating in an environment where it has legalized the Muslim Brotherhood and spoken of a democratic political process would not necessarily share Mubarak’s reluctance to see Hamas win a victory.

There will be pain and regret, inevitably, when the lists of those to be freed are released — from Israelis who have suffered at the hands of those who will now walk free, and from Palestinians whose loved ones were not on the list (there are thousands) and whose hopes of getting them freed in the foreseeable future will have been dashed. But the smiles on the faces of Noam and Aviva Shalit, and those that can be expected on the faces of a thousand Palestinian families when their own sons are freed, offers an all-too-rare moment free of pain in the enduring conflict.

– With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem

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