The New York Times (Blog)
November 24, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group in control of Gaza, appeared to be nearing a deal on Monday to exchange an Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, seized three years ago for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, with potentially significant implications for the stalled peace talks. The deal could include Marwan Barghouti, a popular Palestinian leader, officials said.

Sergeant Shalit’s fate has been the topic of endless discussion and concern in Israel. Why has so much hinged on this case? If a prisoner swap is achieved at some point, what would that say about Israeli policies? Would it create new opportunities for dialogue between Israel and Hamas?

* Daniel Gordis, The Shalem Center
* Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist
* David Makovsky, co-author of “Myths, Illusions and Peace”

A Strategically Senseless Swap
Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and the author, most recently, of “Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.” He blogs at

From a strategic perspective, freeing Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians makes no sense. The hundreds of prisoners now in Israeli prison were captured in dangerous operations, many of them at a cost of other Israeli casualties.

The outspoken opponents of the trade, who claim that the freed terrorists will return immediately to terrorist activity and may soon kill more Israelis, could well be right about that, too. So, too, are those who fear that paying such a high price for Sgt. Shalit will only induce Hamas and Hezbollah to try to capture more Israelis, both at home and abroad.

The Shalit case is also a reminder to all Israelis that that many of the once apparently inviolable red lines of Israeli foreign policy are now much more blurred. Despite Israel’s stated position that it will not negotiate with terrorists, Israel is clearly negotiating with Hamas. And with Hamas still publicly committed to Israel’s destruction, Israelis are now being reminded of the limits of our ability to declare who is and is not a player in the Middle East. Making the trade would further blur those lines, opponents insist.

Despite all these considerations, however, it is almost unimaginable that if a deal is possible, that Israel will turn it down. Because despite the strategic mistake this might be, Israelis sadly know that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will end only when Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist, as a Jewish state. And that day, tragically, still seems far off.

Therefore, we need to be able to ask our sons and daughters to wage a war in which their own children might well also have to fight. We can ask that of them only if they know that if the unthinkable should happen, we will never rest until they are home.

That is the great irony of the Shalit case. On many levels, it makes no strategic sense. But with the conflict likely to persist, and with our sons and daughters asked to make extraordinary sacrifices to keep us safe, they need to know that we are no less devoted to them than they are to us. And on that level, the trade makes all the sense in the world.

An Absurd Situation
Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.

The case of Palestinian prisoners and the prospect of a prisoner exchange between Hamas and the Israelis reveal aspects of the conflict that Israel has tried to push under the carpet for too long. Indeed, it showcases the absurdity of the Israeli army occupying an area against the wishes of its people for 42 years while refusing to honor international humanitarian law regarding the treatment of people under occupation.

What’s more, it is politically horrifying that Israel is willing to reward radical Hamas with a prisoner exchange instead of honoring the commitments of the Road Map, which call for, among other things, a freeze in settlements in the occupied territories.

Israel is holding more than 10,000 Palestinians, some without charge or trial. Almost all of these prisoners are being held in contradiction to various international laws and treaties, particularly the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the actions of a prolonged occupying power. These prisoners are routinely denied basic rights, including the right of family visitations because of the inaccessibility of Israeli prisons to more than 90 percent of Palestinians living in the occupied territories. (Only families living in East Jerusalem or those who have managed to get permits through the Red Cross can visit their imprisoned loved ones.)

According to international law, once occupation ends, the occupying power is obliged to release prisoners. But Israel refuses to recognize these jailed Palestinians as either prisoners of war or as “protected individuals,” insisting that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a war. (When Israel regrouped its military forces to the outskirts of Gaza, it demanded that the world consider the occupation of Gaza over and yet refused to release Gazan prisoners.)

If press reports about Israel’s refusal to release prisoners from East Jerusalem are correct, it is one more example of Israel expecting the world to respect its unilateral decision to consider East Jerusalem part of the occupied territory.

Different Perspectives
David Makovsky

David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process, is the co-author of “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.”

With the help of German and Egyptian mediation, Israel and Hamas are trying to broker a deal that would end the 3 1/2-year captivity of Gilad Shalit, reportedly in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. In Israel, there are four different clusters of policymakers weighing the move. Their interests may vary, even though outwardly they will present a united front.

The first group is the cabinet. These are politicians who have born the brunt of the public campaign urging that anything and everything be done to ensure Sergeant Shalit’s release. This public campaign for one soldier’s release has been huge, which is not surprising in a small country where army service is compulsory and many parents feel that it could have just as easily been their son captured. Thus, these elected politicians will support a deal for Sergeant Shalit, as they tend to be the most sensitive to public opinion and will put a premium on the political windfall that could accrue to them.

The second group is the Israel Defense Forces. The Israeli military has strongly advocated for Sergeant Shalit’s release, since it tell parents that Israel will leave no stone unturned to ensure that any soldier is returned home. This is designed to keep public morale high.

The third group might be less enthusiastic for a Shalit deal, however. This is the Shin Bet, which is responsible for providing intelligence on terror threats coming from the West Bank and Gaza. If many Palestinian prisoners are released, this is bound to increase the number of threats. Moreover, it will enable Hamas to claim that they too will not leave a stone unturned until those who perpetrate violence are released, and by doing so gain new recruits. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet, who is widely believed to have successfully counseled outgoing premier Ehud Olmert to reject the last negotiation with Hamas earlier this year.

Then there is a fourth group composed of Israeli policymakers working within Israel’s National Security Council, Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office, which is contemplating a completely separate dimension to the issue, namely, the impact of the deal on the prospects of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas. It is interesting that there are reports that the National Security Council is being circumvented in these negotiations. If consulted, these people will want to know how Hamas will use a Shalit deal to reshape the Palestinian internal balance of power. Won’t Hamas be able to say that kidnapping is vindicated because it produces better results than Mr. Abbas’s methods, to whom such high profile prisoners have not been released? If Hamas is currently low in the polls, won’t it be able to use this release as a springboard and force elections on its terms and thereby force Mr. Abbas to make good on his threats to not run again and resign?

This cluster of policymakers knows well that Palestinian politics is often driven by conspiracy theories and this release will be used to press an improbable idea: Israel wants Hamas to succeed. Therefore, this cluster may wonder — if the deal cannot be stopped given its domestic popularity — whether a counterbalancing move toward Mr. Abbas can be made that will be just as significant.

Perhaps this could be something major like coming up with a timetable that enables Israeli security forces to withdraw from West Bank cities. The irony is that such a timetable is imaginable now given the improved security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces during the last year. But if so many Hamas prisoners are released, will such a timetable become unattainable in the future?

Given that Mr. Abbas’s future is very much on Washington’s mind, one would hope that the Obama Administration is being consulted at this key juncture before developments and their possible implications take their own course.


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