While the agreement to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is good news for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – embattled as he is by nationwide social and economic protests and a demanding right-wing faction – it is even better news for Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that has held Sergeant Shalit for more than five years.
Not only does Hamas get credit for winning the freedom of about one-sixth of the Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons, it also catapults itself once again into the front ranks of the Palestinian leadership.
For several weeks, Hamas leaders have been concerned that the bold bid to have Palestine recognized as a member state of the United Nations had given Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas the unassailable position at the helm of the Palestinian leadership. Talk of the once-celebrated reconciliation between Hamas and Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement was no longer to be heard and Hamas’ role as co-leader of the Palestinian resistance had been jettisoned.
Not any longer: Hamas is back.
With the popularity that only a massive prisoner release can bring, Khaled Meshaal and most other Palestinian leaders are once again in the mix.
Indeed, Mr. Meshaal’s fingerprints can be seen all over this prisoner swap. The Damascus-based leader arrived in Cairo in August, clearly intent on making a deal with the Israelis. He brushed aside Ahmed Jabari, head of Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, who appeared to have been dragging out the process of arranging a swap.
Not only does this move now put Mr. Meshaal firmly atop Hamas’ leadership and make him a more equal partner with Mr. Abbas, it also closes the gap that had arisen between Hamas and Egypt.
During the Hosni Mubarak regime, the Egyptian president made no secret of his contempt for Hamas, an Islamic movement linked to his own political nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood. But even in the wake of Mr. Mubarak’s ouster in February, Egypt’s military authorities made it clear they would only embrace Hamas at a price: Mr. Meshaal and his cronies would have to reconcile with Mr. Abbas and would have to accept the terms of a prisoner exchange with Israel that Egypt had negotiated more than two years ago.
This week, Hamas paid the price – and Mr. Meshaal is positioned to enjoy the benefits.