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Does anyone really believe Gilad Shalit will be released after two and half years in exchange for Israel opening the border crossings to Gaza, but not releasing Palestinian prisoners?

This is the slight of hand Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is apparently trying to pull off. Last week, Israel agreed with Egypt that Shalit would be released in exchange for a list of prisoners that included Marwan Barghouti. There was a dispute concerning four other prisoners, including Ahmed Saadat, who planned the murder of the late minister Rehavam Zeevi.

Egypt assessed - based on conversations between its intelligence head, Omar Suleiman, and Israel's chief negotiator, Amos Gilad - that this obstacle could be overcome.

Egypt even began preparing for the next phase, summoning Fatah and Hamas for a reconciliatory meeting in Cairo today to create a basis for discussions on opening the Rafah crossing in the future.

Egypt's working assumption is that Shalit's release and the implementation of the cease-fire - no matter the order - will already be behind us. Is Egypt, so well-versed in these matters, daydreaming, or was it duped? Did Amos Gilad lie to Suleiman, or was he also surprised by the prime minister's position?

No matter how we define what Olmert is saying, his new "condition," which supposedly gives Shalit precedence over opening the crossings, is a bluff. Hamas does not have and never had any problem agreeing to and allowing for Shalit's release first, and the cease-fire agreement second.

Agreeing to this does not contradict the principle Hamas set for itself, that the cease-fire is an issue separate to Shalit's release. If Israel wishes to first bring about Shalit's release, it may do so - for the same price.

Things were not different when Shalit was abducted, during the first cease-fire and after the war in Gaza. Israel, which imposed its siege on Gaza because of Shalit's abduction, did not internalize Hamas' terms, which consistently proceeded on two parallel tracks: Lifting the siege and implementing the cease-fire regardless of Shalit, and working for the release of its prisoners regardless of the siege.

Following international and Arab pressure, Israel realized it had no choice but to pursue two tracks. Now it seems that it is not the order of actions that is important to Olmert. He simply does not want to pay the price, and believes he can bend Hamas by making Shalit's release a condition to opening the crossings.

Olmert does not want to release the prisoners Hamas is demanding in exchange for Shalit. And if they must be released, better his successor do so. If this is indeed his decision, he should say so: "I cannot pay the price, and I have decided to give up on Shalit." His conduct over the past few days regarding the Egyptians leaves no room for any other conclusion.

In lieu of a cease-fire agreement and without Shalit, not only does the war in Gaza ring empty of any achievement, it heralds another stinging failure around the bend. Egypt is free to continue its talks with Hamas and Fatah on opening the Rafah crossing, a future deal which will not depend on Shalit's release or a cease-fire with Israel. Egypt is prepared to open the crossing if Hamas agrees to the terms of the agreement on the matter, which was signed in 2005. The rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah and their willingness to reconcile with one another is just another component of a shift we can expect to see. Even though talks have been postponed for the moment, the two factions are under pressure to reconcile before an Arab summit in March.

And one should add to this the words of George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, who said that Washington supports Egypt's efforts to reconcile the Palestinian factions and is itself interested in seeing a national unity government in the Palestinian Authority.

These developments would mean a twofold failure for Israel. It would mean a united Palestinian government presided over by Hamas and enjoying American support. Such a government would make a mockery of Israel's 2006 decision to boycott this Palestinian leadership.

The opening of the Rafah crossing, meanwhile, would void Israel's economic sanctions of Gaza. Goods and services would flow in from the Egyptian side, formally and under European supervision, rendering Israel's condition that Shalit be released in exchange for opening the crossing utterly meaningless.

It is not too late to prevent this failure, to bring back Shalit and stabilize a long-term cease-fire. It is not too late to mend Israel's relationship with Egypt and to prepare for the new American policy on the Palestinians.

But for that to happen, the jugglery needs to stop and the price must be paid. It won't get any cheaper in a week or two months.