Analysis / Israel and Hamas both trying to sweeten Shalit deal
Netanyahu inclined to support swap, with some conditions, contradicting everything he's preached.
The "forum of seven" ministers met in Jerusalem Monday evening for another session, the fifth in less than two days, to prepare for a decision on a prisoner trade to bring home kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is inclined to support the agreement, though with several conditions. Netanyahu has the support of most senior defense officials.
Aviva Shalit, the soldier's mother, said Monday that Netanyahu had told her that ministers would make a decision in the "next few hours" on a deal with Hamas for her son's release.
"They hope the decision will be made this evening, and if not - then tomorrow morning," Aviva Shalit told reporters in Jerusalem, where she was waiting in a protest tent opposite Netanyahu's office.
In these last days before an agreement, both sides are doing everything in their power to make the deal slightly more palatable. Both Israel and Hamas are expending huge efforts on psychological warfare.
Even after filtering out the background noise, things are not simple, and not everything leaked to the press in recent days is still part of the negotiations: Threats, pressures and concessions are all part of the road to the final deal. Everything is allowed, nothing said is a real commitment until the deal is signed.
Newspaper columnists stated Monday that Netanyahu is in an unenviable position, and is without a doubt suffering. The deal violates everything he has preached, in his condemnation of surrendering to terror - and goes against the beliefs of many of his voters.
The decision-making process is accompanied by real tension. For the first time, cracks have started to appear in the romance between the prime minister and his defense minister, Ehud Barak. Barak wanted to cut short the debate on the way to the deal, and didn't see much point in all the dithering.
Still it seems that the reports neatly dividing the seven - Barak, Dan Meridor and Eli Yishai are in favor of the deal; Moshe Yaalon, Benny Begin and Avigdor Lieberman are against; and Netanyahu is uncertain - are much too simplistic. Transferring the debate to the forum of seven was an artificial act, allowing Netanyahu to compartmentalize the process and control leaks. The body that decides on the prisoner swap deal is the cabinet, or at the very least the inner security cabinet. Those bodies are expected to vote in favor by a wide margin.
Netanyahu's approach is clearer than commonly thought. After all, he is the one who decided to resume the negotiations from where they stopped, and he has agreed to cross the red lines set by his predecessor Ehud Olmert. And if he did not want a deal that includes serious concessions, he never would have agreed to publicize the Shalit tape in October.
The key figure during most of the negotiations has been the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin. The censor has banned publication of his stances in recent discussions. All that can be said is that if the deal is approved, the decision will be based on the opinion of the majority of the defense establishment heads. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi supports the deal, but Mossad chief Meir Dagan objects. As for Diskin, a year and a half ago he changed his stance when he agreed to free a large number of murderers as long as they were expelled abroad.
The Arab media is reporting that the main debate focuses on several Hamas members responsible for multiple murders, including Ibrahim Hamad, Abbas al-Sayyad and Abdullah Barghouti. If Israel agrees to release them, they will be banned from Palestinian territory. Foreign reports say Israel is demanding that 130 of the prisoners be expelled.
Hamad, the head of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank, was captured in 2006 after more than a decade on the run, and it will not be easy for Israel to agree to his release. Brigade commanders in the Ramallah area kept a blurry black and white picture of Hamad in their pockets. He was convicted of direct involvement in the murder of 82 Israelis, and has never renounced his beliefs. He even told his interrogators that if he was released, he would continue to fight.
The seven are discussing even the smallest details of the agreement, one name at a time. Maj. Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben-Reuven, who heads the Born to be Free organization to return captives and the missing, says the government faces a security problem and a moral problem: deterrence and preventing terror, versus redeeming captive soldiers. He says the security problem, even if it involves dangers, can be solved. But there is no answer for commanders who lead their soldiers into battle if they are left in Hamas hands.