ANALYSIS / Shalit Has Become the Key to Mideast Peace

World hopes Shalit's transfer to Egypt would prompt prisoner swap, usher progress on other fronts.

Never before have so many senior officials dealt so long with the fate of a single captive soldier, a soldier that became the key to so many important moves.

Three years after the capture of Gilad Shalit, the international community has decided to turn the key in the lock of the Gaza siege. This is supposed to unlock the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, perhaps with the additional profit of a split between the more moderate Gaza Hamas with the more radical Damascus section. The idea to unilaterally disengage Shalit from Gaza and relocate him to Egypt is meant to inject new energy into the prisoner-exchange negotiations. A gesture by Hamas in allowing Shalit to meet with his parents in an Egyptian guest house is expected to put pressure on Israel - at home and abroad - to reciprocate by releasing prisoners and a more generous opening of the Gaza border crossings.

And that's just the begining. The Shalit deal is but a first move in an extensive and complex political process, and but one ingredient of the PR campaign that will accompany it. President Obama's strategy of politics-and-PR was backed by the rest of the Quartet last week, as Russia, the EU and the UN gave him their blessing to revive the spirit of the 1991 Madrid conference. Just like 18 years ago, the U.S. wishes to move the Middle East peace process on two parallel tracks. The first is bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel, Syrian and Lebanon. The other is multilateral talks between Israel and the members of the Arab League.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hinted in the Wall Street Journal last week that the Arab states are prepared to begin normalizing relations with Israel without waiting for a withdrawal from the occupied territories - as stipulated in the Arab peace initiative. But it is Israel that needs to make the first crucial step - an unequivocal commitment to freeze all construction in the settlements.

The Arabs have learned that since the Madrid conference, Israel has tripled the number of settlers in the West Bank. The conditioning of normalization on construction freeze is the explanation for Obama's insistence about national growth.