Israel and Hamas both have an interest in showing progress on Shalit deal
Despite interest, there is still distance between intensive negotiations and the signing of a deal, due to substantive disparities in parties' positions.
The resumption of negotiations in Cairo for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as reported since the beginning of the week by Arab media, involves a coalescing of interests by the parties involved: Israel, Hamas and Egypt. All of these players currently have an interest in showing outward progress in the negotiations, or perhaps just the appearance of progress, in contacts over a deal.
There is still, however, quite a distance between intensive negotiations and the signing of a deal, resulting from both substantive disparities in the parties' positions and from considerations each of the parties has against arriving at a resolution. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that there was a "grain of truth" in reports of progress on the issue in Cairo.
Periodically, over the past five years and two months during which Shalit has been held in captivity by Hamas, however, we have heard similar assessments. It is too early to know if there is substance to the reports this time.
It seems that the more fundamental change in approach has been made by Hamas. In recent months, the organization resisted softening its position and the hardest line has been shown by the heads of the group's military wing in Gaza, Ahmed al-Ja'abari and Mohammed Def. Suspicion has been expressed that these two long-time wanted men might be seeking to humiliate Israel rather than having any desire to reach a deal. The arrival in Cairo of Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of the Hamas political bureau, reflects the major changes that have swept the region in addition to Meshal's desire to get back to leading the process.
Extended stays in Damascus on the part of senior Hamas officials have become less attractive, and Meshal has also wanted to convey the message to Ja'abari and Co. that, at decisive moments of decision, "I will lead. I will navigate."
At a time when the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is condemning Syrian president Bashar Assad - who has also slaughtered residents of Palestinian refugee camps in Syria - and Arab states are recalling their ambassadors from Damascus in protest at Syrian policy, the hospitality of the Alawite regime becomes less appealing to Meshal and his colleagues. This appears to be the right time for them to foster closer ties with Egypt, whose temporary leadership would be pleased to be able to demonstrate achievements in the form of mediation of a deal that would ultimately result in the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners and an additional easing of the siege on Gaza.
Hamas is also confronting another factor. As September approaches, the Palestinian Authority is dictating the Palestinian agenda through its efforts to achieve recognition of an independent Palestinian state at the United Nations. Hamas, which is not currently interested in a flare-up with Israel, is busy trying to track down rocket-launching cells from Islamic Jihad and other factions in the Strip.
A breakthrough in negotiations over the release of Shalit would enable Hamas to resume control of the Palestinian agenda. Stated differently, Hamas would be interested in completing the deal over the next month so that come September, instead of talking about recognition at the UN, residents of the West Bank would attend Hamas victory parades on the occasion of a Palestinian prisoner release.
On the Israeli side, a lot has been said in the past month about the desire of the Netanyahu government to deflect public discourse from the protest over social issues. At a time when conspiracy theories have gained popularity in the social protest tent camps (regarding a deliberate escalation in the territories or a bombing of Iran ), a deal for Shalit's release looks like a more politically beneficial step on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's part. This is particularly so when all of the tent protesters' demonstrations mention the release of Shalit.
The security risks involved in a deal on Shalit are lower than the danger of an immediate war that would be expected from exercising either of the other two options. In addition, polls in recent years show clear and consistent public support for Shalit's release - even if a deal involved "painful concessions."
Around a month and a half ago, a senior Egyptian official complained that Israel was demanding the expulsion of too many of the people on the Hamas prisoner list (about half of the 450 names ). Recently, however, one Hamas leader explained that Israel was showing surprising flexibility in the number of freed prisoners it was demanding be expelled from the area after their release.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has recoiled from cutting a deal over the past two years both because of opposition in principle to the release of mass-murderers responsible for the death of hundreds of Israelis and due to concern over a rift with the ideological hard core on the right, who vehemently oppose such a step. At key junctures involving past decisions, the prime minister preferred to fudge the issue rather than pay the price for a decision that could later turn out to be mistaken or one that would exact a political price.
It's very possible that the same thing could happen this time, or that Hamas will spare Netanyahu the dilemma and dig in its own heels.