The agreement to free Israeli Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit after more than five years in captivity was due in part to Israeli fears that the Arab Spring might undermine Egyptian military rulers who had been pressing Hamas to make a deal.
But even before he is freed, political analysts were weighing the repercussions of Tuesday’s dramatic developments to win Shalit’s freedom.
As the Israeli cabinet gathered for a special 8 p.m. meeting to approve the deal — which involves Israel’s release of morethan 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit’s freedom — analysts suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could pay a political price for negotiating with terrorists.
Others said the release of those Palestinians — most with “blood on their hands” — would undoubtedly boost the standing of Hamas. It might also send a chill down the spine of the Palestinian Authority, which had been seeking to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian public with last month’s bravado display at the United Nations.
As conflicting reports circulated about the possible release of a widely beloved former Palestinian leader, Marwan Barghouti, analysts said his release might present Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with an unexpected rival.
And by dealing with Hamas — albeit indirectly through the use of German and Egyptian intermediaries — Israel was also sending a message to Abbas that Israel too can play the unilateral game.
News of Shalit’s impending release — which reports suggested could come within days — created euphoria throughout much of Israel. Virtually everyone in this country, which has seen repeated rallies and vigils in Shalit’s behalf over the years, knows the name and face of the 25-year-old.
Shalit’s father, Noam, said after the Israeli cabinet voted 26 to 3 to accept the terms of the agreement with Hamas: “We bless the government for its courageous decision, despite the long stretch of time that has passed, this being the second sitting prime minister while Gilad has been in captivity.
“We want to thank all of the activists who stood with us all these years. They stood by our side during the long struggle, and all our supporters in Israel and throughout the world.”
As the cabinet was meeting, Shalit’s family continued its long-term vigil in a tent outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, surrounded by scores of onlookers and media. After the cabinet vote, the family said they would take down the tent and go home.
Although details of the prisoner swap were still emerging Tuesday evening, Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said they appeared to be similar to a proposal Israel rejected a year ago.
“It appears the terms didn’t change, only Netanyahu’s willingness to accept them,” he said. “The new head of Israel’s general security services reportedly recommended that the government could go ahead with the deal. The security assessment was that the Palestinians to be freed could all be monitored and that the cost [to security] would be minimal.”
According to JTA, Netanyahu said on Israeli television Tuesday night, “With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all for that matter. The window appeared following fears that collapsing Mideast regimes and the rise of extremist forces would make Gilad Shalit’s return impossible.”
The prime minister added, “If all goes according to plan, Gilad will be returning to Israel in the coming days.”
Initial reports said the deal would first involve the release of 450 Palestinian prisoners — including 280 serving life sentences. Of those, 110 are to be released to their homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and about 55 of those are from Hamas in Gaza; the rest of from Fatah and other Palestinian groups.
Another 131 of the prisoners are Gaza residents — many of them top Hamas members — who are to be allowed to return there.
A second group of 550 prisoners is to be released in another two months.
This deal is clearly a victory for Hamas, according to Yarom Meital, a Middle East expert at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“I think Hamas is actually the winner because the media tells us that Hamas demands actually changed very little over the last five years,” he said. “It repeatedly insisted on the release of 450 prisoners, including those from all Palestinian groups and not only Hamas. For them this was and is a most important issue … [because] it beefs up its image not as a sectarian but as a national movement.
“In the current political struggle between Hamas and [Abbas’] Fatah, Hamas gains quite a lot because the issue of political prisoners in Palestinian society is one of the most important; it is critical. So here Hamas is taking the lead and Abbas cannot do anything close to it.”
Steinberg pointed out that Netanyahu had “committed himself [to freeing Shalit] almost two years ago, and Israel sees itself today as better able to control Palestinian terrorism than at any time in the last 10 years.”
With unrest in Egypt breaking out again in recent days, Steinberg said Israeli officials worried that “a deal might not be possible if Egypt became more and more unstable.”
Hamas grew closer to Egypt after the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, and Steinberg said their leverage was crucial in making the deal happen.
“The Egyptians had a major role in this” and their success “makes them look very good,” he said. “It’s a gesture to the Egyptian military to allow them to claim credit for it and it strengthens Egypt’s image as a serious player that Israel can do business with. Israel also wanted to demonstrate that the Egyptian government can play a major regional role” at a time when Turkey is seeking to become the lead regional player.
Another possible reason for the deal now is that Hamas might have perceived itself as weaker because of the unrest in Egypt and the muscle flexing of the Palestinian Authority.
“Hamas might have been concerned about [anticipated] negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and want a deal now,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a Middle East specialist at Bar-Ilan University.
“Israel is also saying to Abbas that if [the PA] wants to go unilaterally, Israel can also move unilaterally and damage them,” he said. “This is Israel’s way of saying it has leverage in a way the international community can’t do anything about.”
Should Barghouti be released, he could present a threat to Abbas’ continued rule over the Palestinian Authority. The former Fatah leader could present problems for Israel, however, because of his prior willingness to resort to terrorist attacks.
Should Abbas perceive Barghouti as a political rival, Rynhold said, it could encourage him to “rush into an agreement with Israel, making more concessions” than previously considered.
“I think Abbas might feel he needs some sort of victory to strengthen himself, and that might push him to move from his flag waving victory at the UN and start negotiations again,” he added. “And this might be Israel’s way of pushing things away from the UN and back to the negotiating table.”
The political ramifications of this deal for Netanyahu are likely to be seen a week or two after Shalit returns home, according to Tamir Sheafer, an associate professor of political science and communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“He has to sell this painful deal to the Israeli public,” he said. “There are many people on the right who are going to oppose it. Most of those to be freed have blood on their hands — some a lot of blood. Among Netanyahu voters, a majority is likely to be against or split evenly. If you look at previous polls, those in the right generally opposed such agreements — including Netanyahu.”
Meital said he does not buy Netanyahu’s argument that the deal could be made now because of uncertainty in the Arab Middle East. He said that since the terms of the deal are similar to those Hamas has sought for the last five years, “why did it not materialize earlier?
“Netanyahu said that the time now is crucial because of the events in the Middle East, but this is not a convincing argument to me. We should remember that Netanyahu … actually said numerous times that he could not support a deal that would let free dozens of very dangerous Palestinian prisoners who could harm the lives of Israelis.”
Sheafer pointed out that the release of 1,000 prisoners for one Israeli — Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip by terrorists from Hamas and other groups in June 2006 — is “the highest price Israel has ever paid” for the return of one of its own.
Asked why Netanyahu — who was among the most vocal opponents of previous terrorist swaps — would agree to such a deal, Sheafer replied: “There was very strong public and political pressure, and when you serve as prime minister your point of view is different. It shifted Netanyahu 180 degrees.”
In the long run, he said, “the debate about this deal will continue over time and I’m not sure it will be something that will benefit Netanyahu, although I hope it will.”