It is impossible not to be impressed by the skilled work that we have witnessed in recent weeks. A German mediator ran between Israel and Hezbollah; an Egyptian mediator came and went between Hamas and the government of Israel. A taboo subject was broken and oaths evaporated. It appears that the official agreement between Israel and Hezbollah on how prisoners and captives will be exchanged will be signed today. An agreement on a package deal for the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit is also on the verge of being concluded (verbally) - and in both these deals public opinion is fully involved. The Internet and television are full of views on the deals, T-shirts are being printed with photos of the abducted soldiers, rallies are held, Shalit's book is being sold, stickers are stuck on motorbikes and public service announcements count daily the number of days the soldiers have been in captivity.
No diplomatic process between Israel and an Arab state was engulfed in the same sense of urgency and determination, shared by both the government and the public, as the release of the prisoners and the tahadiyeh (cease-fire). In none of the other processes did the public develop such deeply intimate relations as it has with the heroes of the drama and their families, or with Sderot and its residents. Every detail, every statement, every name, hint, nod, spasm, all were immediately registered in the public's consciousness.
But the closeness, which is very focused and therefore highly effective, distorts the background from which it emerged. First of all, it distorts the fact that Israel is negotiating with groups and not states. The Palestinian Authority, like the Lebanese government, had nothing to do with these negotiations. They watched from afar how those groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, are taking onto themselves the authority of states and holding negotiations that are not only about the release of prisoners. Every such negotiation has diplomatic and political aspects. After all, if only Hezbollah. not the government in Beirut, can gain the release of Lebanese prisoners, and if only Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian factions have the power to bring about the collapse of Israel's policy of sanctions and opening the crossings into the Gaza Strip - what's left for the state above them to do?
In one of his speeches, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah ridiculed the government of Lebanon for its failure regarding the release of Lebanese prisoners. In an interview last week, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar explained, "Yasser Arafat had been given a chance to free prisoners from prison but he failed. They gave Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] a chance to release prisoners and he only managed to free a few. We were therefore forced to abduct the soldier."
Israel experiences pangs of great pain every time it needs to undertake such negotiations, but could have probably avoided the experience. During the first days of the Second Lebanon War it appeared that Hezbollah was willing to release the two abducted soldiers to the custody of the Lebanese government, so that it would negotiate over them. It is unclear why Israel rejected the offer. In retrospect, we can also say that even before the raid, the abduction and the war that followed, Israel could have negotiated over the release of Samir Kuntar with the government of Lebanon, granting it the political gains or at least the role of mediator.
Israel could have also decided that a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas is an authority with which it could do business, but it opted to boycott it and by this contributed greatly to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. It is not clear that the abduction of Gilad Shalit would have been avoided, since he was captured by groups that are not part of Hamas, but at least the negotiations would have been conducted with a Palestinian government with authority.
There is no way to avoid the conclusion that Israel prefers the current framework. Negotiating with groups may appear to be a concession, but this is far from being the case. Israel is releasing prisoners of the kind that it can arrest any day, but it is not being asked to relinquish territory. It shakes a hand - indirectly, of course - with Hamas, and grants it the authority of a state and political standing that it refused the group when it was elected in free elections in 2006. But Israel is not required to recognize Hamas. It could have released prisoners earlier and handed them over to Mahmoud Abbas as part of the Road Map. But then, alas, this would have been perceived to be a political achievement of Abbas before he did anything for Israel.
This is not a mistake in judgment; it is policy. Fortunately, it is not only in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority that policy-making has passed on to groups when the state is paralyzed. In this case, Israel too has passed on political decisions to an organization. Here they call it "the Israeli public."
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