- The Shalit deal does not signal a significant change in the relationship between Israel and Hamas. Both sides did the deal mainly for their own domestic reasons, not out of a desire or expectation to improve the relationship between them.
- The prisoner exchange deal does not represent a fatal blow to Fatah or the path of diplomacy. Nevertheless, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be less likely to accept a Quartet proposal to re-enter talks with Israel, and will be more determined than ever to press on with his unilateral bid for UN membership.
- The public support for the deal in Israel will benefit Prime Minister Netanyahu in the short term, but the positive political impact for him is likely to be limited. In making this agreement he has shown his pragmatism and willingness to take difficult decisions, but may have put at risk his reputation as a safe pair of hands with Israel’s security.
- Israel is acting in the context of a challenging and fast moving strategic environment. With Egyptian elections around the corner, it is hard to know whether a future Egyptian government would have been able to play a similar mediating role. Moreover, the deal allowed Egypt to reassert its regional role following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
- Hamas, by compromising on some of its key demands – namely, by conceding on the release of senior movement figures and accepting the exile of some of the most dangerous prisoners – has indicated how vulnerable it feels its current position is, vis-à-vis Fatah following the Arab Spring.
Will this deal change relations between Israel and Hamas?
Though this deal does indicate the ability of the sides to make pragmatic agreements when it’s in their mutual interests, the deal does not signal a significant change in the relationship between Israel and Hamas. Israel agreed to the release of 1000 prisoners for Shalit as early as 2007. Despite heavy public pressure in Israel to bring about a deal, it was not concluded because Israel was not willing to release all the prisoners demanded by Hamas and wanted the worst offenders sent out of the Palestinian Territories. On this occasion, with Hamas somewhat on the back foot, and willing to soften some of its demands, the Israeli government saw a window of opportunity. Israel is acting in the context of a challenging and fast moving strategic environment. With Egyptian elections around the corner, it is hard to know whether a future Egyptian government will be able to play a similar mediating role.
There is also no indication of a strategic shift on the part of Hamas. When Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh made his victory speech at the homecoming parade for the Palestinian prisoners in Gaza, he clearly conveyed that Hamas was motivated to close this deal primarily by its domestic political struggle, rather than any desire to realign its relations with Israel. He told the crowds that, ‘This deal is not only that of the citizens of Gaza but also of the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Arabs of ’48 [Israeli-Arabs] and the Arabs of the occupied Golan.’ He added ‘the borders of Palestine are the borders of the deal,’ meaning not Gaza and the West Bank, but Israel also. He was using the deal to make an explicit attack on his political rivals in the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority, which is seeking the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, alongside Israel.
Hamas decided to go after a deal because of the pressure it found itself in the context of the Arab Spring. Hamas is close to losing its stronghold in Damascus because of the turmoil in Syria, and is looking for an alternative base in Egypt or in the Gulf States. Hamas is also suffering a decline in domestic popularity, especially among the youth of Gaza. This is due to their failure to deliver a significant improvement of life in Gaza, the failure to achieve a Palestinian unity government, and their opposition to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ UN bid. Hamas is also under economic pressure, with declining financial support from Iran.
As a result of these factors, Hamas felt now was the time to cash in on their major political asset, the ability to release a large number of prisoners in return for Shalit. Realising their maximal demands could not be met, they softened their demands to make the deal possible. However, this meant imprisoned senior Hamas leaders, such as Abdullah Barghouti – a bomb maker who is responsible for the deaths of more than 60 Israelis – Ibrahim Hamed and Abbas al-Sayed could not be freed as part of the deal. In addition, Ahmad Saadat, the leader of the small but influential Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was also not included. A member of Hamas’ political bureau, Mahmoud Zahar, on Egyptian television said that the movement haggled name-by-name with Israeli officials and “with some, we managed to overcome the obstacles. But with others we couldn’t.”
To a certain extent, Hamas has maintained a ceasefire with Israel since Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009, mainly because Israel successfully established strong deterrence in that operation. But there is no sign that Hamas is undergoing any deeper re-evaluation of its opposition to Israel’s existence and to the peace process, which is rooted in its radical Islamist ideology. Hamas is likely to try and continue to increase its diplomatic standing in the Arab world and beyond, without accepting the Quartet’s demands that it renounce violence, recognise Israel, and accept previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Improved relations with Egypt in particular, with which the Gaza Strip shares a border, offer the opportunity for Hamas to relieve the isolation the Gaza Strip has been under since Hamas’s violent takeover in 2007.
How will this impact Palestinian internal politics?
In the fierce political competition between Hamas and Fatah, the prisoner exchange deal provides Hamas with a clear public achievement. Since violently seizing control over the Gaza Strip in 2006, Palestinians have witnessed the Islamist group fail to deliver any of its pledges and its popularity declined significantly, both in Gaza and the West Bank. In the West Bank, under pressure from Palestinian and Israeli security forces, Hamas’s powerful organisational infrastructure and network of activists were reduced to insignificance. Hamas will seek to maximise the impact of the deal and reassert itself at the legitimate centre of Palestinian politics.
At the same time, the deal puts Fatah in an extremely uncomfortable position. Despite Fatah’s clear achievements, particularly in resuscitating the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, Hamas will use this success to argue that Fatah’s diplomatic path has failed where Hamas’s intransigent strategy of violent resistance has succeeded.
However, casting a shadow over Hamas’s achievement, Fatah rank and file is already criticising the Islamist movement’s failure to secure the release of Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is a prominent and highly popular Fatah leader who was a key figure during the Second Intifada before being captured by Israel and convicted on five counts of murder. Polls suggest he would win a Palestinian presidential election, but for this reason he is also perceived to pose a political threat to the current PA leadership. As long as Barghouti remains in prison there is no apparent frontrunner to claim the presidency.
Another factor that has mitigated the damage suffered by Abbas, the leader of Fatah, is the positive reception Palestinians gave to his performance at the UN last month. However, as a consequence of the prisoner exchange, Abbas will be less likely to accept a Quartet proposal to return to talks with Israel, and more determined to press on with his unilateral bid for UN membership
There is a question about whether the boost to Hamas will generate a breakthrough in the formation of a Palestinian unity government. There is no immediate sign that this is the case. Six months on from the signing of the Palestinian unity agreement at the beginning of May, it remains an unconsummated marriage. The Palestinians look no nearer to agreeing the makeup of a new cabinet or choosing a Prime Minister, nor is there a clear date for elections.
Not only do the two sides have very different political visions, but they continue to maintain independent armed forces. It is hard to imagine either side voluntarily relinquishing rule over the territory they control. Given these circumstances, it remains difficult to see how a viable Palestinian election can take place, and it is not clear that Hamas’s success significantly changes the picture.
What is the political impact of this deal in Israel?
The deal has brought a wave of relief in Israel, albeit accompanied by deep regret at the sight of hundreds of convicted Palestinian terrorists walking free. Netanyahu will welcome the domestic political boost he is likely to receive, after a tough summer of social protests in Israel. But the positive impact is likely to be limited and there is a risk for Netanyahu in the medium to long term. In making this agreement he has shown his pragmatism and willingness to take difficult decisions. But his reputation as a safe pair of hands with Israel’s security could be compromised if there is an increase in terrorism as a result of the deal. Israeli security analysts estimate from past experiences that 60% of the prisoners will return to terror activity.
Whilst media commentators continually speculate that coalition rifts could cause the collapse of the government and bring early elections, Israel’s governing coalition continues to look reasonably stable for now.
What’s in this for Egypt?
The cruel interview Gilad Shalit was forced to give to Egyptian television before being returned to Israel, with his Hamas minders still standing over his shoulder, illustrated clearly the Egyptian interests. The Egyptians wanted to milk their diplomatic success for all it was worth. The interviewer, sitting in front of an Egyptian flag, asked Shalit, ‘It was the Egyptian national security that mediated for your release… Why do you think that this time round, the mediation was a success, and what would you like to tell the Egyptian authorities?’
Relations with Egypt are important to both Israel and Hamas, and Egypt made use of this fact in brokering the deal. The deal has allowed Egypt to reassert its regional role, at a time when internal political turmoil had marginalised it diplomatically. With Egypt distracted, Turkey has tried to assert itself as the dominant regional player. In this deal, Egypt has been able to play a pivotal role precisely because, unlike Turkey, it has maintained its relationship with Israel.
It would be a mistake to draw too many wider conclusions from the success of this deal. It was made possible principally because Hamas was at a low point and needed a win, and Israel saw an opportunity that might not have come again. The key factors determining Israeli-Palestinian relations remain more or less as they were before.