The Shalit Deal Is Not Really A Victory For Hamas

We got back to Jerusalem last week, coincidentally, the very hour Gilad Shalit was finally reunited with his family. Our own pulled themselves away from the television to receive us, though greeting him vicariously was, for all the obvious reasons, more preoccupying than greeting us in the flesh. We watched, too, captivated, before giving in to sleep.

Shalit has been a symbol for so long that it was touching to see the poise of the pale young man, particularly during the spontaneous interview forced upon him by Egyptian television. He exuded a kind of decency, not entirely a surprise given how winning (and devoted) his parents have been throughout this ordeal. When asked the kicker question, namely, could he imagine the feelings of released Palestinians, he answered tactfully that he could, but that he hoped they would not return to acts of violence against Israelis. He said that he missed most of all during his captivity not being in conversation with people. As I said, decency.

The same could not be said about many of the reporters who covered the event, but nothing surprising there either. Perhaps the award for tactlessness went to Channel Two's Friday anchor Yair Lapid, the son of former reporter-turned-politician Tommy Lapid, who himself gestures toward a political career at times. Lapid was interviewing a spokesman for the Palestine Authority in Ramallah (I wish I could remember his name, but jet-lag wins) and asked something like: "Aren't you sometimes jealous of Israel, that we value human life so much that we trade one for a thousand?"

It fell to this spokesman to say, yes, he admires Israelis for making the trade, but also to remind Lapid that Arab families value the lives of their children, too (and that, though this is hardly a reasonable way to keep moral books, during the past ten years ten Palestinians died for every Israeli death).

PERHAPS THE MOST common assumption in the press is that Hamas wins as a result of the deal, and, indeed, street demonstrators in Gaza held signs suggesting that more kidnappings would lead to more freed Palestinian prisoners. There have even been rumblings that the heads of the IDF and army intelligence are adamantly arguing for freeing another 500 prisoners to the PA's Mahmud Abbas simply to give him a victory, too.

But though a new release of prisoners to Abbas may be a good idea, I think this awarding of a victory to Hamas is short-sighted. The deal, like all bilateral deals, implies a common desire to look forward rather than backward.  Otherwise, how to justify releasing people who've committed heinous murders for one rather callow soldier? And if people are looking forward, Hamas does not have much to offer--unless the only thing to look forward to is stalemate and a fight to the finish. (In that case, the question of who gains from the deal is irrelevant.) Does anyone really think Gazans have the stomach for a new kidnapping and a new retaliatory war? Has Hezbollah tried another kidnapping since 2006? (Before the exchange, Abbas was even more popular in Gaza than in the West Bank.)

If, on the other hand, the deal portends both an ongoing effort to restart diplomatic efforts and a more or less normal Palestinian rivalry among incumbent movements, any step toward greater calm can only help Fatah. For Fatah, not Hamas, is the Palestinian state-builder, the symbol and manager of international diplomacy and economic development. If the Israeli government does indeed internalize the idea that Abbas and his secular nationalists need help just now, some kind of peace process may be rekindled. It cannot be an accident that Netanyahu offered a freeze of government building in the territories immediately after the deal--a hollow offer, since almost all building is by private contractors, but an offer nevertheless.

Besides, just think of what will happen if, as seems likely, the deal will end the closure of Gaza and West Bank business people will enter Gaza more easily, renewing steps toward the economic integration of the two territories. How does Hamas gain from that? How does Hamas gain either from Israel calming its relations with Egypt, which was central to the negotiation?

(A footnote: Palestinians will argue, not without plausibility, that the swap was actually symmetrical because any member of an occupation army is guilty of crimes under international law. And who knows what Shalit believed about IDF cruelties to Palestinian civilians before his capture. But even by the standards of the Goldstone Commission, a common soldier in the IDF, born long after the territories were conquered, is hardly a war criminal. A man who, whatever the political provocation, organizes a suicide bombing of a restaurant or launches a rocket into a civilian area is. Then again, a great many of the Palestinians released from prison were not murderers or war criminals either.)

NONE OF THIS is to suggest that negotiations will succeed if they are started. I'll argue at length in the December Harper's that without Israelis coming to terms with the various underlying meanings of the Palestinian right of return, and Palestinians coming to terms with the various underlying meanings of Israel as a "Jewish national home"--without, moreover, the confederative relations implied by "coming to terms"--no lasting peace deal can be struck. Still, the Shalit deal can only be seen as a positive force toward reconciliation, especially if Netanyahu moves quickly to capitalize on the solidarity and high-emotion evoked by seeing sons coming home to longing families. This, after all, is the fugitive point of peace.

And since I've had some skeptical things to say about the Israeli press, I ought to compliment one commentator, somebody I've poked at in this blog in the past, namely, Haaretz's Ari Shavit, who appeared on Channel One Friday evening and said just what the moment called for. Netanyahu, Shavit argued, had crossed a line in doing this deal, but he dare not underestimate what he achieved. He should now either accept Hamas as an interlocutor or move quickly to help shore up the Fatah-led PA with a serious diplomatic offer. The worst thing to do is nothing.

He was joined on the panel by the always rational Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, who took things another step. If the Quartet, Farkash said, is able to create an agenda for new negotiations, Israel should do what it has to do to get the talks started and put a genuine offer on the table. As I said, intelligence.