Emotionally and symbolically, exchanging Gilad Shalit for 1027 Palestinian prisoners had a lot of value – mostly because of intense campaigning over the past few years. In the broader picture, however, the deal was of very little consequence. That said, the end of a 5-year impasse in negotiations must have come for a reason. So what was really going on when Hamas made the deal with Israel? Well, as Karin Laub and Ibrahim Barzak point out, the Egyptian mediation in brokering the deal was perhaps the most important and overlooked part of the story:
The swap, mediated by Egypt, has strengthened Hamas’ bond with the regional powerhouse next door and removed a major irritant from its fraught relationship with Israel.
…The swap helped boost Egypts stature as a regional power against competitors Iran and Turkey. In the final phase of the negotiations, Hamas showed flexibility to ensure success, in part to avoid alienating Egypt, analysts said. Hamas made sure that Schalits first interview, after emerging from captivity, was given to Egyptian television, apparently to highlight Egypts role.
So the deal confirms not only that Egypt is getting closer to Hamas, but that it is ramping-up its meddling in Palestinian affairs. That means a lot – Mubarak was very insular, but Egypt has historically been a powerhouse. The new rulers are obviously keen to assert themselves.
Egypt’s next goal is to push for a unity deal between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement, said an official with knowledge of those efforts. Having rival Palestinian governments – Abbas’ in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza – endangers the region, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Abbas and Mashaal are to meet in coming days in Cairo to try to break the impasse that has held up a reconciliation agreement reached in the spring. Skeptics say a breakthrough is unlikely because of deep ideological differences and because each side wants to safeguard achievements in the territory it controls.
Martin Indyk, hoever, doesn’t think that Egypt deserves so much credit. By his reckoning, the story is really happening in Damascus as Hamas is looking around the Arab world for a new city to base themselves in.
The negotiations were conducted by the same Egyptian intelligence services that conducted negotiations in Mubarak’s time, so there has really been no change in that regard. What’s changed is that Hamas was more willing to do the deal and make concessions this summer than they were previously. The key to understanding why they became more flexible lies not in the Egyptian revolution but in the Syrian revolt.
Hamas’ external leadership has been based in Damascus, where they are under the direct influence of Iran and Syria. The Iranians have had no interest in any deal that would lower the flames of Arab-Israeli conflict, because it is that conflict which enables them to spread their influence into the Arab hotbed, right up to the borders of Israel. Therefore, in the past they pressed Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the external Hamas based in Damascus, not to do the prisoner deal with Israel. Much to the frustration of Egyptian and German mediators, they were unable to pull this deal off at critical junctures because of Iran telling Meshaal not to do the deal.
But the real tragedy of the deal? As Indyk points out, it has strengthened Hamas and those who support violent resistance while weakening any Palestinian support for negotiations.
The deal’s human dimension can’t be dismissed, because it was what drove the deal. And Israel’s desire to save one soldier’s life is what led to this lopsidedness. The broader political implications aren’t positive. Hamas has long argued that its approach–violence, terrorism, kidnapping, hostage-taking–is the most effective way of retaining Palestinian rights, whether that’s getting prisoners released, getting settlements evacuated, or getting territory liberated. That narrative has been vindicated by this deal.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is Hamas’ political opponent, was unable to achieve a major prisoner swap like this, which included the release of many terrorists with a good deal of blood on their hands. Abu Mazen has been unable to achieve through negotiations the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the West Bank or the liberation of Palestinian prisoners. So those who reject compromise and peacemaking with Israel and talk violence and terrorism are the ones who have been strengthened.
The message from the swap is simple: terrorism works. Israelis were ok with that because of their emotional investment in Shalit, but this is not something that anyone should lose sight of.