Lop-sided Israeli prisoner exchange suited all
Published 19/10/2011 | 05:00
STRIP the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange down to its basics and it is very straightforward. Hamas has handed over an illegally-held Israeli soldier in return for Israel freeing 1,027 of the most violent terrorists on the planet. On any objective criteria, that represents a triumph for Hamas. Even more so when you realise that these were exactly the terms Hamas demanded five years ago when Shalit was seized. Five years of captivity and yet Israel has gained no better a deal than if it had acceded at the outset.
As for the message it sends to terrorists: it could be no clearer. If you want a mass breakout of your convicts, don't bother with escape attempts. Take an Israeli soldier hostage, hold on to him and eventually Israel will do a deal.
But in the Middle East, nothing can ever really be stripped down to basics. The accoutrements of history, ideology and realpolitik change the normal dynamics. Yes, there is outrage in Israel that 1,027 terrorists have been set free -- and not just from the families of their victims. But far more than that, there is joy at the return of one of the nation's sons.
In Israel, polls have recorded 79pc support for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's agreement to the exchange.
In a country which has faced a literal existential threat from its inception in 1948, with every Israeli having to defend that existence through compulsory army service, the first and most basic duty of every government, no matter its political stripe, is to look after its soldiers.
The sense of bonding this gives to Israeli society defines Israel as a nation. All citizens have, at various times, been soldiers. So when one is captured, it is not simply a distant tragedy, confined in its full impact to military families. It is a tragedy for the whole nation. That is why what is, objectively, a heavy defeat is seen very differently within Israel.
Every soldier has a mother and father and the Shalits have been proxies for all of Israel through their years of endurance. The parents of Israel Defence Force soldiers expect the government to know no limit to the lengths it will go to protect its troops. Yitzhak Rabin released 1,150 terrorists for the return of three soldiers. The message rang out then, too, that kidnapping Israelis works. But as with Mr Netanyahu now, he was not pilloried but praised.
It is true that the prime minister has written: "Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists by giving them the feeling that even if they are caught, their punishment will be brief".
But that was 16 years ago and Mr Netanyahu has never been renowned for consistency. Last week, he set out why a deal had to be done now.
"With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region," he admitted, "I don't know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal -- or any deal at all, for that matter."
There is one possible positive for Israel from the margins of the negotiations. Egypt's role as mediator was crucial. Former president Mubarak's departure eight months ago appeared to have led to a severe deterioration in Israel-Egyptian relations. But it was the country's temporary and supposedly weak government that actually secured a deal.
As its price, Egypt demanded that Hamas relocate to Cairo. The uprisings in Syria have shaken Hamas, which is headquartered in Damascus, and it was already seeking to move -- but its hand has now been forced. The Egyptians will doubtless try to prise the organisation away from Iran's control and Israel will hardly be averse to that.
THE 1979 peace treaty with Israel may be deeply unpopular with the Egyptian population, but the caretaker administration is well aware that it is essential to the continuation of the country's good relationship with America as Egypt receives more from the US -- much of it as military aid -- than Israel.
Hamas, too, was desperate for the deal. Its popularity within Gaza was waning, with the sense that events were leaving it behind. The Palestinian Authority's (PA) economic and institutional reforms have greatly improved life for those on the West Bank, while Gaza is, to say the least, dysfunctional. Hamas needed a bold success.
It could have opted for more terror. But it focused on delivering a concrete and undeniable triumph over Israel. In showing that its violent methods secured the release of so many Fatah prisoners, it will seek to ridicule the non-violence of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah.
Speculation about the impact of the deal on peace prospects is pointless. Nothing has really changed -- yet. Hamas remains committed to terror. The PA has decided to forego negotiations in favour of unilateral action. Israel is building in the settlements.
But a captured Israeli soldier is now home with his family and Israel rejoices. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Stephen Pollard is editor of 'The Jewish Chronicle'