Last Tuesday’s prisoner exchange is a game changer for both Israelis and Palestinians. Already, this much is clear:
First, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity is soaring. Despite the controversial price for Gilad Shalit’s release, more than 75 per cent of Israelis support the deal. Even skeptics offer praise, describing this as a defining moment for Mr. Netanyahu’s “new narrative” as a strong leader. Given his outspoken opposition to earlier prisoner exchanges, which he described as “shameful capitulation,” his insistence on a starring role in the reception ceremonies is all the more ironic.
Second, as Israeli Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen bluntly says, “this deal strengthens Hamas and weakens Fatah.” Until this week, Fatah had the upper hand. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas scored big in his drive to obtain United Nations membership, especially given U.S. opposition to the move. Hamas’s concessions that enabled the prisoner deal were aimed at reversing the balance sheet in its favour, and now Hamas is back on the streets of the West Bank, not just Gaza. It’s also viewed as the party capable of obtaining results by using force, something Mr. Abbas’s diplomatic efforts failed to achieve. The chilling rallying cry among Palestinians is now, “the people want a new Shalit.”
Third, by mediating Sergeant Shalit’s release, Egypt has maintained its relevance as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In fact, because it’s more open to the Muslim Brotherhood, it delivered what deposed president Hosni Mubarak failed to do. Israel has every interest in keeping Egypt as a stable interlocutor.
What isn’t clear is what all this adds up to: Is Israel now weaker or stronger? That all depends. It’s lost points as Palestinian motivation to capture more soldiers as bargaining chips is viewed as a question of “when” rather than “if.” It’s also no secret that the vaunted Israel Defence Forces failed to come up with a military option to release Sgt. Shalit, or that Israeli intelligence failed to identify his location. So it’s not out of the question, for example, to expect a harsh Israeli response to rocket fire from Gaza or a tougher negotiating stand in similar future situations. Still, Israel’s willingness to go all out for one living soldier wins it points on the values scale, and its internal cohesion has been solidly reinforced.
Is the deal related to Israel’s stand on Iran? There’s speculation that both Mr. Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak prefer to translate credit on the Shalit deal not to further Palestinian negotiations but to create a cushion of public support should they decide to up the ante and undertake military action against Iran. (Senior U.S. officials continue to make their displeasure with this option clear, but recent personnel changes in Israel’s senior military and security posts mean the option’s still alive.)
Finally, will Mr. Netanyahu translate his strength into bold moves on the Palestinian front? Not impossible, but unlikely. Some critics say he wasn’t sorry to weaken Mr. Abbas. If so, since the only way to counterbalance Hamas’s gain is to reinforce Mr. Abbas in talks and concessions on the ground, there isn’t much to hope for. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to release Marwan Barghouti, Fatah’s most popular prisoner, who’s committed to a two-state resolution and viewed as an heir apparent who can unify Palestinian ranks, is yet another blow to Fatah’s standing.
Wednesday’s New York Times challenged Mr. Abbas to give because he’s weak and Mr. Netanyahu to give because he’s strong. A test of leadership for both men, indeed.