Gilad Shalit March 15, 2011 (Gil Cohen Magen)
Noam Shalit standing behind a cutout of his son - captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Photo by Gil Cohen Magen
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What caused Israel to agree in the end to a deal with Hamas, after negotiations that went on for a period of more than five years? In the past few days, four explanations have been put forth, two of them official.

The first concerns the flexibility that appeared in the position of Hamas. This past July, says David Meidan, the prime minister's envoy on the Shalit file, Israel received, in a roundabout fashion, a document containing Hamas' expectation of the final version of a deal. For the first time, sources in the defense establishment understood that the Islamist organization would consider compromising on two demands that had until then constituted the major stumbling blocks in the negotiations: the release of senior prisoners, and minimizing the number of prisoners who would not be permitted to return to their homes in the West Bank.

Since then, six rounds of talks were held in the Egyptian capital until the deal was tied up. At the same time, Egypt stepped up its involvement in the mediation. Israel responded to the Palestinian signs of flexibility with concessions of its own. It agreed to allow the names of relatively senior activists from Hamas' military wing in the West Bank, for example, to be added to the list of those to be released (on condition that they would not return to the West Bank ). Names of a few Israeli Arabs and residents of East Jerusalem were also added to the list.

Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen attributed the change in Hamas' attitude to a combination of several factors. The organization's heads seemed to finally understand that Israel would not agree to free the most senior prisoners even if additional pressure was brought to bear on it. Egypt also bore down on Hamas to make concessions, the situation in the organization's Damascus headquarters was becoming uncomfortable, in light of the ongoing civil unrest in Syria, and Hamas needed an achievement, in view of the political capital that its rival, the Palestianian Authority, had gained at the United Nations last month with its application to join the world body as an independent state.

The second explanation, one offered frequently by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his aides, speaks of a window of opportunity. The many changes taking place in the Middle East, so Netanyahu averred, created a narrow window of time during which it would be possible to conclude a deal. The view was that in another two months, the mediators from Egyptian intelligence would probably be so preoccupied with internal troubles in their country that they would not be able to contribute their part. "I believe that this is the best deal we could get," confirms Cohen.

And yet, the Egyptian explanation, which on the face of its sounds logical, also raises doubts: The status of the intelligence service in that country is actually relatively stable at the moment, and significant changes are not anticipated in it during the coming year. Furthermore, the previous stage of the negotiating process was conducted by Germany, which succeeded three years ago in closing a deal for a swap between Israel and Hezbollah. It is possible that in this case, too, another mediator could have been found, if necessary.

The third explanation is obvious, even though it is not being voiced publicly: The prime minister is in a not-insignificant state of political distress. The media are constantly battering him over his apparent inability to make decisions and the diplomatic stalemate, while the social protest has upset his cool. But with Gilad Shalit on his way home, who will want to listen to protest leader Dafni Leef during the next few weeks?

The fourth explanation - Iran - will be dealt with below.

Marathon session

Netanyahu's emissary, Meidan; the Shin Bet's Cohen; and the premier's military secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, finished up the two-day-long talks, which concluded with a marathon session that went on over 24 straight hours, by signing the deal.

The three had arrived in Cairo on Sunday morning with good reason for optimism. During the previous round of negotiations, on October 5, with the active mediation of officers from the Egyptain intelligence service, the sides drew up the final blueprint for the deal: how many prisoners would be released and at what stage, how many would be expelled and to where. What was left was to adapt the list of names to the parameters that had been decided upon, a process that took another two days. At its end, the Egyptians had a document on which Meidan and Nizzar Awadallah, the head of the Hamas delegation, could sign. Throughout the talks, the members of the two delegations refrained from meeting with one another or from shaking hands. They sat in buildings that were in relatively close proximity while the senior Egyptian intelligence officers moved between them.

It seems that the Shalit family did have an idea of what was taking place, but the captive soldier's parents chose to keep the devoted activists in the dark. Meidan said on the eve of Sukkot that the confidential atmosphere had helped the negotiations. "Here and there a report appeared in [the daily newspaper] Al-Hayat, but we came to the conclusion that it would be better to keep the progress under wraps." Nor were any details leaked from Sunday night's meeting of the government's "forum of eight," where the deal was presented.

The military censor took care of the rest. Except for a small item on the front page of Haaretz on Tuesday, the cloak of secrecy was maintained until the last minute.

Significant concessions

A sober examination of the deal suggests that Meidan and Cohen were able to extract an agreement that is certainly reasonable from Israel's point of view. One cannot ignore the numbers (1:1,027 ) or the symbolic achievements of Hamas in the form of the release of East Jerusalemites and Israeli Arab prisoners. However, the mega-murderers that Hamas was constantly claiming would be released, will remain in prison. The most outstanding symbols of the organization - Abdullah Barghouti, Abbas al-Sayed, Hassan Salameh and their colleagues - do not stand to gain anything from the deal.

The large number of releasees being sent into exile (203 of the 450 "heavy" prisoners ) is also a significant concession on the part of the organization, which until recently insisted it would agree only to a handful of exiles.

On the other hand, Israel is releasing 280 murderers who were serving life sentences, and were involved in horrific acts of terror. These include those who participated in the 2000 "lynching" in Ramallah of Yosef Avrahami and Vadim Nurzhitz, the abduction and murder of the soldiers Nahshon Waxman, Avi Sasportas, Ilan Sa'adon and Shahar Simani, and the suicide bombing at the British police station junction near Ramallah, in 2002.

Netanyahu would not have signed the deal without getting the blessing of the head of the Shin Bet. In a conversation with journalists at the staff headquarters of the service, on Sukkot eve, Cohen presented his point of view in a candid, almost harsh way. "It's always easier to say no to everything," he said. "But we must tell the truth: This deal does not help the security situation, it even harms it. The experience of the past has taught us that some 60 percent of security prisoners who are released go back to their evil ways, to terror. And some 15 percent return to prison."

At the same time, Cohen added, the large number of those exiled lessens the mass that can return to their homes in the West Bank to a relatively small number, 96, that can be dealt with. Turning to Gaza, Cohen said: "There are 20,000 members of Izz al-din al-Qassam in the Gaza Strip. If another 200 or so are added to them, our world will not be overturned. There is also a moral aspect to this: our commitment to bringing back our soldier. There is a price for that."

The country's feeling of solidarity with its fighters - the same feeling that brought the reservist demonstrators to Shata prison this week - is indeed a central consideration. Yoram Cohen claims that the final structure of the deal, with its large number of exiles, moves what he calls "the needle in the security equalizer" to a place where the risk that results from the release is one that the Shin Bet can deal with. In this manner, he has taken on himself a larger risk than his predecessor, Yuval Diskin. Time will tell whether he was right.

When Shalit returns, perhaps this coming Tuesday, a collective sigh of relief will be heard through Israel, almost like that at the end of a war. The nerve-racking story will apparently draw to a close when the soldier and his family are reunited. The newspapers of the next few days would do well to warn their readers about the dangers of too much saccharine. The media are under the impression that they must make it clear to their customers that this is a great story. This festive atmosphere, however, cannot wipe out the bitter feeling that accompanies the conclusion of the swap.