Gilad Shalit and the End of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

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Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit walks at Kerem Shalom crossing outside the southern Gaza Strip after his release, October 18, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

As momentous as Tuesday’s release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit and 477 Palestinian prisoners (with another 550 to freed within two months) may be, it is unlikely to be a game-changer — or a milestone on the road to peace. Indeed, while the spectacle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu breaking the ostensible taboo on negotiating with Hamas and heeding many of its demands in order to bring home the captive Israeli soldier may look like a sea-change, it’s more likely to reinforce the stalemate in the wider conflict — and possibly even raise the danger of a new hostilities.

Despite the fervent opposition of some Israelis — from families of terror victims to prominent cabinet members — to freeing men with Israeli blood on their hands, Netanyahu’s decision remains a popular one. A poll conducted by the daily Yediot Ahronot published Monday showed that 79% of Israelis support the deal, reconciling themselves to paying a bitter price for bringing home the soldier captured, at age 19, more than five years ago. Still, it should come as no surprise in the months ahead if an Israeli government forced into what it will see as a humiliating agreement seeks to restore its self-image of resolute toughness by dealing harshly with future challenges. And the fact that Netanyahu’s climb-down on Shalit has been accompanied by the announcement of new settlement construction on occupied land underscores the sense that Israel’s hawkish government has no intention of making the compromises necessary to bring President Mahmoud Abbas back to the table. Abbas, after all, holds no Israeli captives, and may not have much else Netanyahu believes he needs right now.

Indeed, the Shalit agreement has been something of a setback for Abbas. Hamas’ achievement in freeing some of the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prison is a more tangible gain, in Palestinian eyes, than the hypothetical statehood amid continued occupation being pursued by Abbas at United Nations. Palestinian society doesn’t regard these men and women as criminals, but rather fighters in the national cause — a peace agreement with the Palestinians would ultimately require the release of all Palestinians who remain in Israeli custody, even if convicted of acts of terrorism.

(PHOTOS: The Five-Year Ordeal of Gilad Shalit)

But no such painful moment of reckoning is in the offing, of course, because neither side harbors any hope of negotiating an end to the conflict any time soon. The recent speeches at the United Nations by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored the vast gulf between the two sides, and only the most Pollyanna-ish of Western diplomats expect anything significant to come from the current effort by the U.S. and its “Quartet” allies to restart direct talks as an alternative to Abbas’ U.N. effort. Abbas has made clear that even if he agrees to meet Israeli leaders,  he won’t drop the U.N. bid — which, after all, is what forced the Obama Administration to address the issue with greater urgency.

But the Shalit deal upstages Abbas, giving Hamas a victory that will be celebrated by all Palestinians (the prisoners being released come from all factions), and serving up a reminder that the group cannot be ignored or sidelined in any successful peace effort.

Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy explains:

“Given the numbers that have passed through Israeli jails over the years, the prisoner issue speaks to just about every Palestinian family. The contrast was rather stark: Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas was in South America being rebuffed by the Colombians in his appeal for support on the doomed-to-fail U.N. membership bid (Colombia is currently on the Security Council), while Hamas was securing concrete achievements back home. Again, the timing here was crucial — Abbas had just received a boost to his popularity by defying Israel and the U.S. in making an emotional appeal to the U.N. That would anyway be difficult to sustain if the U.N. move could not be morphed into something meaningful, but now it will be further downsized as a gesture in comparison to the pictures of hundreds of prisoners embracing their freedom.”

Hamas’ ability to impose its terms for freeing Shalit also contrasts sharply with Abbas’ years of ineffectual negotiation. But while the Israelis were willing to make a pragmatic accommodation with Hamas to secure their soldier’s release, neither side will see it as a first step towards political engagement. If the Israeli government has been unable to come to terms with the more pliant Abbas, there’s no question of being able to do so with Hamas. And Hamas would likely prefer to seek pragmatic agreements on specific issues, such as prisoners, ceasefires and the Gaza blockade, boosting their own standing without having to own any of the compromises that a comprehensive peace agreement would require.

(PHOTOS: Hundreds of Palestinians Freed in Prisoner Swap)

Hamas, in fact, has shown little interest in pursuing a “grand bargain” peace agreement with the Israelis of the sort envisaged under the Oslo Agreements. And in that respect, at least, the Israelis may concur, having made no secret of their belief that a comprehensive political settlement to the conflict is not currently possible.

The Shalit deal could raise pressure on Abbas from his rank and file for progress in the stalled rapprochement with Hamas. The fact that the Israelis were forced to deal with the group in a pragmatic manner might give Abbas some cover against Israel’s refusal to deal with him if he proceeds with the unity agreement — after all, Abbas might argue, it makes no sense for Israel to acknowledge reality in its own dealings with Hamas but insist that Abbas refrain from doing so.

But regardless of whether or not he reconciles with Hamas, the Israelis are not showing any inclination to accepting Abbas’ terms for talks. Indeed, the lesson Abbas might draw is that Hamas succeeded on the prisoner deal because of the leverage it brought to the table by holding Shalit. Not that Fatah would now try to match Hamas by undertaking kidnappings of its own, but the prisoner release could reinforce efforts from within Abbas’ camp to raise Israel’s discomfort level with the status quo through protest action and pressing for global economic sanctions.

It’s quite possible, of course, that either Hamas or rival movements seek to repeat the Shalit experience at some point in order to free more prisoners. Should that happen, it’s also likely that the lesson taken by Israeli leaders from the Shalit experience translate into an early, high-risk military operation to free any future captives.

Even with no more kidnappings, however, the prisoner exchange is a reminder that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza remains fraught with peril, with the peace process moribund and Israelis and Palestinians only just beginning a new diplomatic, political and economic battle over the terms of their coexistence. The Gilad Shalit deal may, in fact, prove to be a first milestone of the post-peace process.