Thursday, June 25, 2009

Palestinian reconciliation may begin with release of Shalit

Haaretz is reporting that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit may be transferred to Egyptian custody within hours or days as part of the initial steps toward Palestinian factional reconciliation. Shalit was captured exactly three years ago on June 26, 2006 by Hamas militants operating just outside the Gaza Strip in an attack that killed two other Israeli soldiers. Hamas has denied the Red Cross access to Shalit, demanding Israel release 400 Palestinian prisoners and open the Strip's borders to humanitarian and economic goods.

Egyptian intelligence officials earlier indicated that Palestinian reconciliation was supposed to be completed by July 7, and Shalit's release may be the first stage in creating a unity government between Fateh and Hamas.

Haaretz has also reported that part of the reconciliation deal may include the establishment of a joint committee led by current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to administer the Gaza Strip, which Hamas siezed control of two years ago.

Israeli officials have not confirmed these reports, which originated with European and Egyptian sources.

This report certainly sounds like a promising step toward Palestinian reconciliation and the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, but similar rumors have circulated before indicating Shalit's imminent release. Despite the inaccuracies of earlier reports, all sides may now believe the time is right for a prisoner swap and a meaningful reconciliation attempts.

Here is a quick breakdown of what each side stands to gain from a possible Shalit release/reconciliation:

Mahmoud Abbas (and Fateh)
The current Palestinian president is ruling by decree due to the Fateh/Hamas split in June of 2007. Abbas recently appointed a new government that was universally panned by Palestinian factions (including his own ruling Fateh party) and is desperately seeking legitimacy for his
presidency. Recent polls indicate that the popularity of Hamas is on the decline. He may view reconciliation as a clear chance to put the stamp of legitimacy on his government as it is unlikely he would be excluded from a Palestinian unity government (or even asked to step down as president). Abbas may believe that Hamas's decreased support will translate into a sweeping electoral victory for himself and his Fateh party whenever one is held.

What he's afraid of: If Hamas is able to secure the release of approximately 400 prisoners for Gilad Shalit, public opinion may swing toward Abbas's opponents. Look for Abbas to work with Israel to make significant gestures (such as removal of checkpoints/roadblocks, halting expansion of settlements onto Palestinian lands, or ending military activity in major Palestinian population centers) to reward Abbas to counter a percieved Hamas victory.

It's true, polls indicate Hamas's popularity is declining. The Gaza Strip is a nightmare of hunger, despair, and rubble. It is a humanitarian nightmare and it's not looking to get any better soon. Unless Hamas cuts a deal. The Palestinians could continue to blame Israel for their situation (and they would be justified to a certain extent), but they are certainly not beyond placing some of the blame at the feet of Hamas. Polls indicate this is indeed occurring. Hamas cannot simply shoulder the blame onto Israel anymore. It is certainly a possibility that their militant infrastructure (and administrative infrastructure) was heavily damaged during the Gaza War and they are having significant problems rebuilding their forces and maintaining control. An American president is finally seriously pressuring Israel, the international community is focusing again on Middle East peace, and Hamas is losing popularity. Hezbollah recently lost Lebanon's parliamentary elections and moderate Iranians are rioting in the street for reform to the country's Islamic regime. The rules have changed and Hamas feels they must adapt using the one real trick they still have: Gilad Shalit. They may view Shalit's release as a cunning way to quickly curry some favor and legitimacy with the Obama administration and other European regimes looking to join in the peacemaking efforts. As long as they are included in a substantial way in a Palestinian unity government, they'll be able to operate in the open even in the West Bank. Partnering with Abbas is certainly not their top priority, but they may view they have a reasonable chance to win a future election if they are able to bring tangible benefits to Palestinians by releasing Shalit.

What they're afraid of: The changing tides. Watch what Mesha'al has said about Obama in the past months. Palestinians respect Obama and have high hopes for what he might mean to their situation. Hamas cannot afford to actively oppose Obama as they did Bush, so a nuanced response (that means displaying a willingness to work with him) is required. Hamas is much better poised than the Iranian regime or even Hezbollah to shift make an effective shift into the political sphere and begin operating as a legitimate political party in Palestinian life. Secondly, Hamas is afraid of Israeli meddling in Palestinian affairs. If they sense at all that the Israelis and Abbas are working together to stab Hamas in the back during reconciliation efforts they'll storm out of the process immediately and resume a total rejectionist stance.

Benjamin Netanyahu
"What the hell do they want from me?" asked Israeli PM Netanyahu about the Obama administrations demands that Israel halt settlement activity and open Gaza's borders to aid. Netanyahu is feeling the heat. He realized Obama is not joking. Obama made demands, he spoke in Cairo. Netanyahu delivered an underwhelming speech in Tel Aviv and Obama brushed him off again. Netanyahu doesn't want a public quarrel with the popular Barack Obama and he knows securing Shalit's release will score him big points with the Israeli public. Releasing some prisoners and easing up restrictions on the Strip's borders in exchange for Shalit is perfect for him. He gets to placate Obama for just a bit (and perhaps get Obama to back down just a bit on settlements) and win a huge victory for his Likud party.

What he's afraid of: Looking weak. Israeli PM's don't do weak, especially those from Likud. Tough on security, tough on the Palestinians, hell, he just now endorsed the two-state solution (16 full years after it became official Israeli policy). Netanyahu is tough as nails, but Obama is testing him. He has to get Obama off his back without backing down and he needs to get Shalit back without Hamas peppering his southern towns with rocketfire. To continue to look tough (I always have to chuckle when I talk about the political toughness of a man nicknamed "Bibi") he needs clear assurances that Hamas will play ball and not fire rockets. He needs similar assurances that Obama will give him some leeway on a settlement halt. Without those, there's no way he'll approve the deal.

Reports have been wrong before, but the timing may be right. We'll see in the coming days...

Update: It's important to note that there have been several tremors that might indicate that something bigger (Shalit's release) may actually be in the works. Earlier this week Israel promised to remove tens of checkpoints from the West Bank and to cede greater security control over major population centers to Abbas's security forces. These moves may be small gestures to improve life for Palestinians under the Fateh regime and undermine a total victory for Hamas if they are indeed able to secure the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Everyone has to come out of this looking like a winner if it is going to go through, and it seems there just might be enough goods to distribute between Hamas, Fateh, and the Israelis.

Update II: PM Netanyahu cancelled a meeting with George Mitchell and flew back to Israel from Europe before he was scheduled to do so. Perhaps he was needed to sign the final papers for Shalit's release?

Update III: All reports seem to indicate that the initial state of Shalit's release would have him transferred to Egyptian custody, where his parents could visit him. His final release back home to Israel would not occur until after the Israeli government had satisfied Hamas's demands for teh release of Palestinian prisoners. It seems odd that Israel would not be able to interdict his transfer to Egypt from the Gaza Strip, considering Israel has a strong presence on that border. The goal then might be to smuggle Shalit through tunnels into Egypt, but I have the sneaking suspicion that if he is alive he may already be in Egypt. Hamas could much more easily insure his safety and his power as a bargaining chip if he was squirreled away from Israeli intelligence in Egypt all this time. But is it even possible Egypt doesn't know Shalit is right under her nose?

Update IV: Haaretz is now reporting that Shalit's release is part of an American initiative employing Egyptian and Syrian pressure to goad Hamas into giving up Shalit. Egyptian and Palestinian sources have reportedly confirmed that such a deal is in the works. If this is true, the Obama administration is already knee-deep in the peace process and not wasting any time on Israeli-Palestinian stall tactics.

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