After Five Years of Shalit Deal Impasse, Recent Diplomatic Moves Bring New Hope

Sources involved in the talks say despite extremist positions voiced by both sides, the outlines of the deal have long been known: the release, in two phases, of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

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The fifth year of Gilad Shalit's captivity, which ends today, brought no better news than its predecessors. It had the usual mix of lip service and grand protests - yielding nothing except publicity for their creators and unfounded, optimistic reports about supposed progress in the negotiations.

There were a few developments between last June and now, but effectively the negotiations remained where they ran aground in December 2009, with what appears to be a nearly unbridgeable gap between Israel's maximum offer and Hamas' minimal demand.

Jabalya residents walking yesterday past a mural depicting captured soldier Gilad Shalit. Credit: Reuters

Sources involved in the talks say that despite the extremist positions being put forth publicly by both sides, the outlines of the deal have long been known, and that it's clear to everyone they contain the only possible solution: the release, in two phases, of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

The sources expressed the hope that no reckless measures will impede the talks. Were they warning against an attempt to abduct another Israeli soldier?

For now, it appears that disagreement over the fate of a few dozen senior prisoners, arch-terrorists, is holding up the deal. Will they all be freed? Will those from the West Bank be exiled to the Gaza Strip or abroad?

Perhaps only a radical combination of external circumstances, such as continued unrest in the Middle East or real movement in the relationship among Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, could bring the negotiations out of their coma.

There were a few localized changes on the negotiations front: Senior Mossad official David Meidan replaced Haggai Hadas as chief negotiator; Egypt returned to the picture in providing assistance to German mediator Gerhard Conrad, giving a big boost to Cairo's relations with the Hamas leadership in Gaza. But the key is still the parties' willingness to move forward.

For now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears unwilling to cross the line he drew a year and a half ago. Hamas, particularly the armed wing of the organization that is holding Shalit, continues to make unreasonable demands.

The initial months after Galit's capture on June 25, 2006 were wasted on idle Israeli pronouncements. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to eliminate Hamas and swore he would never negotiate with the group. Two and a half weeks later, he was dragged into war with Hezbollah after a second border abduction. Only in February-March 2009, in his final weeks as premier, did Olmert make a presumably honest effort to end the affair, but the Cairo talks reached a dead end.

Associates of Olmert maintain that Ehud Barak, his great rival, was to blame because Hamas upped its demands after the defense minister publicly showed support for the Shalit family. In any case, Barak and Netanyahu are in full agreement over the issue.

Germany became involved after the breakdown of talks in March 2009, with Conrad taking the reins while always being careful to preserve Egyptian honor. After several trips to the area spent shuttling between leaders, in late 2009, Conrad submitted his compromise proposal to the parties. Netanyahu's forum of seven senior ministers approved the deal, after much stammering, but Hamas pulled a disappearing act and effectively scotched it.

Hamas fantasy

It now appears that it was Hamas military wing leaders Ahmed Ja'abri and Mohammed Def who blocked the political leadership (Khaled Meshal, in Damascus, and especially Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud al-Zahar ) from agreeing to the German offer, in the belief that Shalit was too valuable to relinquish: Not only did he serve as a kind of anti-assassination insurance for the military leaders, but they also were loath to abandon their fantasy of getting Israel to agree to all their demands.

An Arabic-language cartoon, apparently authentic, has been making the rounds of the Internet. It depicts Ja'abri as rejecting the demands by the Palestinian prisoners' parents to bring their boys home. "I don't want to," the cartoon Ja'abri insists, holding onto Shalit. "I want to keep playing."

Considering the overwhelming public support in Israel for making painful concessions to Hamas in exchange for Shalit's freedom, Netanyahu is presumably worried most by the potential for political damage. Many Israelis feel that the prime minister has been standing idly by while Shalit continues to suffer in Gaza.

Hamas, for its part, seems incapable of grasping that despite a certain slide in Netanyahu's popularity, he is not moved to action by the public protest. The best example is the nationwide march organized by the Shalits a year ago, which changed nothing. This was also said about the disruption by Gilad's brother Yoel at the Independence Day torchlighting ceremony and about the "celebrity prison" planned for this weekend. Does anyone still remember the "five minutes for Gilad Shalit" action of a few months ago, which promised to wake the country's politicians from their slumbers?

Hamas, aware of its failure to obtain the release of hundreds of prisoners "with blood on their hands," is taking a whole new media tactic; in interviews to Palestinian reporters, its leaders are trying to paint the very fact of Shalit's remaining in captivity for five years as a huge achievement for the organization. Apparently Hamas forgets to mention that from the outset the soldier's abduction was intended as an instrument for prisoner release; his incarceration was not meant as an end to itself.

Prisoners' families are privately demanding that Hamas close a deal to free their imprisoned relatives. The organization, keenly aware of the impossibly high price paid by the Gaza Strip in the wake of Shalit's abduction, finds itself trapped. If it wants to get the deal done, it will have to be significantly more flexible, and if it wants to get it done before the Palestinian Authority election, it must act soon. On the other hand, a show of flexibility could result in harsh criticism from ordinary Palestinians who want to know why they had to pay such a steep price - more than 1,500 dead - for a deal that excludes the ostensibly most dangerous of the prisoners.

What the future holds

Does the sixth year have to be just more of the same?

Not necessarily. Recent weeks have seen a burst of diplomatic activity over Shalit, and in his new position as chief negotiator Meidan can be expected to inject new momentum into the process from the Israeli side.

Last week, the leaders of France and Germany made declarations stressing the need for Shalit to be released immediately; at the same time, senior Egyptian officials interviewed by Haaretz attacked Israel for its intransigence in the negotiations.

All this could, paradoxically, indicate the presence of an opportunity: a renewed Egyptian commitment to expediting the negotiations, the increasing closeness between Cairo and Gaza, the imminent fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Israel-PA tension over September, the intra-Palestinian reconciliation and agreement over holding an election - all these factors create a new context of relations in the region, which under the right circumstances could bring about a positive confluence of interests and result in a slight softening of the positions of the Hamas military wing.

For years, Israel swung between to approaches: "Little Shalit" (a humanitarian deal involving the release of Shalit in exchange for prisoners ) or "Big Shalit" (a comprehensive agreement including gestures that will fortify Hamas rule in Gaza ). Egypt seems to be leaning toward the latter option. Time will tell whether this path could work.



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