Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
Haaretz (Analysis)
December 23, 2009 - 1:00am

Just as negotiations reached their most crucial juncture yet, they seemed in danger of being sidelined by a daft, superfluous clash between Netanyahu's political adviser Uzi Arad, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin Tuesday.

Arad never hid his opposition to the deal, whose current format he considers a strategic error, but it now seems he could have been actively trying to undermine it.

On Monday, Arad briefed journalists from Channel 2 and Yedioth Ahronoth. Masquerading as "a senior source close to the prime minister," Arad launched a vitriolic attack on Ashkenazi, who supports the deal, and on Diskin, whose position has been kept under wraps by the censor. Ashkenazi, Arad declared, is behaving like the "chairman of the soldier's parents committee," rather than the chief of staff. Diskin, he said, was mishandling his job, because his organization did not find out where the captive soldier is being held, which would enable a military operation to free him.

Both the military and the Shin Bet had their failings in the Shalit affair. The military failed to prevent his capture, while the Shin Bet has had trouble obtaining accurate intelligence from that point on.

But this latest attack is as unnecessary as it is mean. Ashkenazi and Diskin, like Mossad chief Meir Dagan - who opposes the deal - are giving their professional opinions. These below-the-belt blows don't put Netanyahu's closest circle in a particularly enviable light, and don't make one too comfortable knowing that this is how the country's most important bureau is run. Netanyahu on Tuesday condemned the attack on the chief of staff, and defense minister Ehud Barak was quick to follow suit. Finally, Arad confessed that he was the source of the attack, met with Ashkenazi and apologized. Still, it's likely the bad blood will remain.

No Christmas spirit from Hamas

Christmas spirit, it seems, doesn't hold much water with Hamas' leaders. The German mediator made Christmas his deadline for the sides to strike a deal, but at this point it seems Hamas is in no hurry to respond to ultimatums or show Christian humility and seasonal goodwill.

Israel's forum of seven ministers replied on Monday with a "yes, but." Hamas will probably make its own reservations. The organization does not seem to be particularly rushed to respond.

A key aspect of the discussions now is how many prisoners will be released, and how many will be deported abroad. If Israel agrees to release more senior figures, it may request Hamas agree to more deportations in return.

To the Palestinians, this presents a significant ideological conundrum. Deportation is the antithesis of the ethos of return, and the Palestinians already deviated from it once before, in 2002 - by agreeing to the deportation of the 13 militants entrenched in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. But then, Israel's interlocutor was the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas. Deportation raises a host of questions for Israel as well. Shall we see Abdullah Barghouti, the "engineer" of the Sbarro bombing, relaxing in Europe, while MK Tzipi Livni can't visit Britain? And how can scores, maybe even more than 100 deportees, be monitored? In 2002 the task was taken up by European police forces, but the European Union is not a party to the upcoming exchange.

A likely outcome is that the prisoners will be asked to commit not to return without permission and not to engage in terrorist activity, with Israel promising not to harm them so long as they keep their commitment.

Meanwhile, it seems doubtful the Christmas deadline is as inflexible as it was made to seem. Israeli sources say they've heard the mediator is giving three more weeks for the deal, including a Christmas break. At any rate, the accelerated process depicted in some of media reports appears to be unrealistic.


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