Shlomo Ben Ami
Last updated: 3 November, 2011

Ransoming Israel’s Chance for Peace

The exchange of prisoners between enemies is often a prelude to political reconciliation. Unfortunately, the recent exchange between Israel and Hamas, in which the Islamist organization gained the lion’s share of more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, does not augur well for the chances of an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Contrary to appearances, the deal is not a reflection of both sides’ interest in beginning a political rapprochement that might lead to the end of the Gaza siege and other confidence-building measures. This exchange reveals quite the opposite – that both parties are committed to their core values of resistance and confrontation.

For Israel, recovering Shalit was its way to uphold an ethos of unity in times of war, and to fulfill the army’s promise to its conscripts (and their families) that no soldier, dead or alive, would ever be left behind. The message was that Israel must remain mobilized and alert in a hostile environment, and that its survival depends on the cohesion of its citizens’ army, as well as on solidarity with those sent into battle.

Controversial and divisive, the Shalit deal triggered a profoundly moral debate in one of the world’s most vibrant civil societies. The deal is also, in the eyes of Israelis, a badge of honor for their res publica – their Periclean democracy’s claim to the moral high ground in an autocratic neighborhood.

For Hamas, on the other hand, the prisoner exchange embodied the core value of steadfastness. It was about standing up to the Zionist enemy, the high-tech crusader whose military superiority can be defeated only by stubborn resistance.

Hamas believes that the deal vindicated the teachings of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nassrallah, who has defined Israel as nothing but a “spider’s web” that can be destroyed with the whisper of a sword. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are bound to conclude from Israel’s emotional collapse at the fate of one young soldier that its helplessness in dealing with psychological and sentimental dilemmas opens the way to its eventual strategic defeat.

Meanwhile, the deal severely compromised the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who has been clamoring for years for the release of prisoners in order to boost his popular standing and enhance his position as Israel’s interlocutor for peace. Hamas’ resounding success in bringing home the heroes of the Palestinian cause was a major defeat for Abbas – and a significant blow to the peace process.

The Shalit deal clearly gave a boost to the war camp in Palestine and weakened its champions of peace. The sad irony is that Abbas is still cooperating with Israel in curtailing Hamas in the West Bank, and is still detaining hundreds of Hamas militants, among them some who were arrested for planning abductions of Israeli soldiers and civilians.

The Arab Spring has pushed Israel into a strategic trap from which it can extricate itself only through accommodation with the Palestinians. In the current political climate, Arab leaders, whether conservative or revolutionary, can no longer afford to be seen as complicit with Israel and the United States in the region. The Palestinian cause will now resonate louder than ever in the central squares of Cairo, Amman, and Ankara.

By freeing Gilad Shalit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have finally become a leader who can take difficult decisions. He will need this quality to make bold moves on the peace process as well.

Admittedly, Hamas is no easy enemy, but neither is it immune to rational political calculations. True, its leader, Khaled Mashaal only recently declared in Tehran that “our aim is liberating all of Palestine from the River to the Sea.” More than once, however, he has also made conciliatory declarations.

But Israel is not required to sign a peace deal with the erratic Mashaal. Its task is to boost Abbas, instead of weakening him, as it did in the Shalit deal. It is in Israel’s best interest to reach a settlement with the man who has constantly repudiated his predecessors’ tactics of armed conflict.