As a prisoner swap for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was said to be closer than ever this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly poised to declare a 10-month settlement freeze.
“Netanyahu is set to announce in the coming days that he will accept a construction freeze in the West Bank settlements for 10 months but will exclude [Palestinian east] Jerusalem,” Yossi Beilin, a former leader of the left-wing Meretz party, was quoted as saying.
“The Americans will say it’s not enough, but that it’s enough to resume negotiations,” he observed, adding that he believed the Palestinians would reject the offer.
But Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, told The Jewish Week that “one of
the results of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting was to try to move the Palestinians … to get them back to the table.”
Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama at the White House earlier this month when he flew to Washington to address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Asked about Beilin’s comments, Shoval said that “from the beginning there was talk of a six- to 12-month halt to construction.
“It is what the Israelis have said all along — we want to exercise restraint,” he said. “We don’t call it a freeze. It would not include Jerusalem and it would allow us to continue things already in the pipeline.”
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said this “political initiative in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority” and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, comes as part of an “Obama-brokered package.”
“We’ve been here before and it has not happened,” Steinberg said. “But there are a lot of signals from all sides that they are close to a package. … The Israeli leadership is involved and unlike other cases, things have been kept quiet until now.”
There are several proposals being floated to restart the talks, but Steinberg said the one that appears to have the most traction is proposed by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It calls for two years of Palestinian state-building followed by the declaration of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“Fayyad’s plan is the scaffolding, the framework for getting discussions going,” Steinberg said. “A problem with the plan is that it offers nothing new on refugees.”
In addition, the other final-status issues, including borders and the future of Jerusalem, would also have to be negotiated. And Steinberg cautioned that “one should not expect that just because negotiations resume all of the issues can be immediately resolved; this is complicated.”
Arye Naor, a professor in the Department of Public Policy Administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said it is “just a coincidence” that there appears to be progress in both talks for the release of Shalit and in resuming peace talks.
Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups kidnapped Shalit in a cross-border raid in June 2006. It is believed he has been held in the Gaza Strip since his abduction. While in captivity, he has been promoted from corporal to staff sergeant.
Although talks for Shalit’s release have appeared promising several times in the last three years, this is reportedly the first time that both political and military Hamas leaders have been directly involved in the talks.
“Hamas wants to remain a player and a Shalit deal can help it to a certain degree” in winning support of the Palestinian people, Naor said. “But if negotiations with Abbas begin, his position would be improved. It’s just a matter of finding a balance of power.”
Details of the prisoner swap are a tightly held secret. The family of Tanzim-Fatah terrorist Marwan Barghouti was quoted as saying they understood that he would be among the reported 1,000 Palestinians who would be freed from Israeli prisons in return for Shalit. But Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom was quoted Monday as saying that neither Barghouti — who is serving five life terms for murder — nor Ahmed Saadat, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, would be among those exchanged.
Shoval said that although “some people in the Israeli government believe Barghouti is a guy you can deal with, I think the majority are against his release.”
Should Barghouti be released, he would become the favorite to succeed Abbas, who has said he did not wish to run for re-election on Jan. 24. But the Palestinian election committee suggested last week that the vote be delayed because of Hamas’ refusal to permit Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to vote. Abbas is reportedly set to accept the recommendation, paving the way for him to remain president for perhaps another eight months.
Freeing Barghouti now might create a power struggle among the Palestinian leadership that Israelis are anxious to avoid, especially because Barghouti has not renounced the use of terrorist attacks.
Shlomo Brom, former Israeli deputy national security advisor, said the release of Shalit in a prisoner swap “in the short-run will cause damage to our Palestinian partners in the Palestinian Authority. But in the long run, it will help us adopt the policies that have a potential to defuse Hamas. That is important if there is to be progress” in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Asked about the concerns of those who believe freeing prisoners for Shalit will only encourage Hamas to carry out other kidnappings, Brom told a conference call of the Israel Policy Forum that it is too late for such a discussion because similar trades have already taken place. “The horse is already out of the stable,” he said.
Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister, told the same conference call that there is no doubt “Hamas will get stronger after this deal, and a stronger Hamas is bad for Israel.”
But he said the damage caused by the release of the Palestinian prisoners could be minimized if they were released in Lebanon or even the Gaza Strip.
“If the government releases them to the West Bank, there will be a disaster in a short time,” Sneh predicted.
Netanyahu said that before the prisoner exchange takes place, he would bring the details of the proposal to the Knesset and seek approval of the Israeli cabinet.
Although the Fayyad plan is said to be the favorite for advancing peace talks, there are several other ideas on the table. One would have Obama call both Israeli and Palestinian leaders together in an attempt to hammer out a peace deal.
Another put forth last week by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz calls for the Palestinians to immediately declare a Palestinian state on the 60 percent of the West Bank in which virtually all Palestinians now live. Negotiations would then start with a promise that the Palestinians would get the equivalent of another 40 percent of the land and Israel would get defensible borders. The talks would deal with resolving all final-status issues.