Partner in Crime?

The prisoner swap with Hamas has left moderate Palestinians in the West Bank angry, and some members of the Israeli defense establishment baffled.


When Gilad Shalit goes out for his first walk in the sun with his smiling mother, even opponents of the prisoner exchange can rejoice with him. After all, there is no one who did not identify with the Shalit family's suffering during the past five years. However, the number of critics of the deal is larger than what is reflected in the media and is not restricted only to people on the right. Criticisms are uttered quietly for the most part. In any case, the decision has been taken and there is no desire to spoil the joy of the soldier and his family, especially as the media have been wrapping the reunion in thick layers of schmaltz. At a time when a number of top former security establishment people - Amnon Shahak, Ami Ayalon, Jacob Perry, Danny Yatom - have come forward enthusiastically in favor of the swap, many of their colleagues think otherwise.

freed hamas prisoner in Gaza - Reuters -

"It is a bit strange to me to be in agreement with the right-wingers," says an officer who holds a senior position in the Israel Defense Forces, "but I find this deal very depressing. Israel has been surviving for years in a problematic environment because it has learned to deter its neighbors. Returning the prisoners sends out a message of flaccidity, and ultimately it will cause us strategic damage."

In the opinion of some of his colleagues, feelings of guilt with regard to the Shalit family overrode rational considerations such as the realization that the deal is strengthening Hamas at the expense of those who have declared their willingness to choose peace with Israel (Fatah ). One senior defense person, now retired, recalls a meeting with Yitzhak Rabin, after the Jibril deal in 1985 in which 1,150 security prisoners were released in exchange for three Israeli soldiers. "I could not face that woman," said Rabin of Miriam Grof, the mother of captive soldier Yossi. The current deal, outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan said this week, is worse than the deal Israel rejected in 2009.

In 2009 there were two crucial rounds in the talks: the round conducted by negotiator Ofer Dekel in February and March, during Ehud Olmert's term; and the "Christmas round" conducted by his successor, Hagai Hadas, on Benjamin Netanyahu's behalf. The talks in that period dealt with a proposal brought by the German mediator, Gerhard Conrad. In retrospect it appears the German proposal (in which the top Hamas people would also have remained in prison ) tied up most of the details. However, the one who blinked first was in fact Netanyahu, who belatedly narrowed the mandate he had given Hadas. Only afterward did Hamas reject the deal as well.

As compared to the German draft, which was rejected in 2009 at the last moment, under the recent Egyptian plan Hamas agreed to the deportation of more prisoners while Israel released more murderers than it had agreed to in the past. Israel also conceded two of its declared "red lines," when it agreed to the release of Israeli Arab prisoners and residents of East Jerusalem.

Possibly this is the basis for Dagan's view that Israel wasted two years and finally signed a less good agreement. Apparently this is also the position of the Germans, who were edged out of negotiations in their final months in favor of Egyptian intelligence.

It is best to take a cautious view of the criticism as well: The tendency is always to think about the rejected choice, which was never put to the real test, as the preferable choice. The field of negotiations is littered with mistakes and interests. It is doubtful there are more than 20 people in Israel today who are familiar with the full picture of the negotiations. Not a single one of them is a journalist.

'Doing your work for you'

In signing the agreement, Netanyahu did a sharp ideological about-face, almost as extreme as Ariel Sharon's decision on the disengagement in 2004. There have been two kinds of explanation for the change in Netanyahu's position: cynical-political (diverting attention from Daphni Leef and the discontent reflected in the opinion polls ) and values-strategic (saving Gilad, exploiting the narrow regional "window of opportunity" ). However, it seems that such a decision is always a mix of both considerations. Menachem Begin was also thinking about the elections when he ordered the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq, and Olmert was aware of his waning popularity when he decided to embark on the last and unnecessary attack during the final 60 hours of the Second Lebanon War.

The top Palestinian official lights another cigarette. It is evident he is angry and, perhaps even more so, insulted. In recent years he had succeeded in winning the confidence of the Israeli security establishment and the American administration because of his success in stabilizing the situation in the West Bank. However, it seems the completion of the Shalit deal was a breaking point for him vis-a-vis relations with the Israelis.

"Don't ask us to go and arrest people you have released," he says. "We aren't going to do your work for you now. You have made it clear to us that we are not your partners. That Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] is not a partner for you. This is the most basic angle from which we are looking at this deal. Don't get me wrong. I support the release of prisoners. I am glad that more than 1,000 families will be seeing their sons and daughters soon. But the feeling here is that you chose this timing in order to hurt Abu Mazen in response to his application to the United Nations. From our perspective, this is a message to the effect that you are examining another partner, Hamas. The strategic repercussions are far-reaching, especially if we examine the regional context. We are seeing how, everywhere in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood is getting stronger. Now you too are abetting this."

Ironically, at a time when the prime minister and the foreign minister are reiterating that there is no Palestinian partner, the PA is continuing to hold in its prison the members of three Hamas cells who planned to abduct Israeli soldiers and civilians, murder them and conduct negotiations over the return of their bodies. About 150 Hamas people are currently detained in PA prisons. The vast majority have been tried and will remain in prison for many years, unless Fatah releases them as a result of the completion of the process of reconciliation with Hamas. If that happens, Israel will accuse the PA of pursuing a "revolving door" policy and damaging its security - quite an absurd accusation when the Netanyahu government is releasing 1,027 prisoners.

A New York Times Editorial, too, asked this week why Hamas yes and Abu Mazen no: "Now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compromised with Hamas, we fear that to prove his toughness he will be even less willing to make the necessary compromises to restart negotiations. And we fear that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah faction will be further weakened."

"The deal will increase the Hamas presence throughout the West Bank," says the Palestinian official. "Some of the West Bank leaders have been released and their influence will grow stronger. At the same time, Israel refused to release many of the Fatah people who were arrested back before the Oslo agreements, even though we have spoken with you about this dozens of times, but now it is releasing some of them in accordance with the Hamas demands. So you can understand what the public is thinking. On the security level, the most difficult problem we have to deal with now has to do with the thousands who have remained in prison, and especially their family members and friends who want to see their release. The Shalit deal is liable to lead to serious thinking, either in an individual or an organized way, about taking violent steps to release prisoners: abduction, killing and the hiding of corpses. I can only say that this deal is far from putting an end to the issue of future abductions and swaps. If there are no diplomatic negotiations and there is no release of prisoners as a gesture to the PA, the conclusion for our people is clear."

Another abduction in the West Bank, he warns, is liable to undermine entirely the system of security relations between the two sides. "I am not talking only about Hamas," he clarifies. "Also about Fatah, the Popular Front or simply people who aren't going to wait for orders or help from an organization. Everybody, without exception, is thinking about abductions now as the best way to release prisoners.

"You have a strange way of relating to your enemies and to your partners," he continues. "The crossing points for goods between Israel and Gaza are open, you are seeing to the economy there, releasing top people to Hamas and strengthening the public support for the organization. Is that what you call an enemy?"

Hamas supporters who celebrated on West Bank streets on Tuesday, after having refrained from public assemblies for years, are aware they will now become targets for surveillance by Israeli and Palestinian intelligence. However, the thousands of celebrants came with their faces exposed, as though wishing to make it clear they are no longer afraid. The participants in the rally chanted "The people wants a new Shalit."

The starting point of most official Israeli spokesmen, after the government's decision on the deal, holds that Israel must not let there be a next time. Some of them are relying on adoption of recommendations of the Shamgar committee rules, which would prohibit mass return of prisoners in exchange for an Israeli captive. Even if the rules are adopted, it is doubtful the Israeli public, and in its footsteps the leadership, will be able to evince toughness at the expense of a soldier whose identity is known, as has happened in the Shalit affair. However, it seems this entire debate rests on the assumption that Israel will be dealing with an organized abduction on the part of Hamas. What would the government of Israel do if some former Fatah activists or family members of a prisoner without membership of an organization succeed in abducting an Israeli in the West Bank? Whom, then, would Israel be able to deter? Would it declare war on the PA, which is trying to thwart such abductions?

It is impossible, of course, to ignore the emotional element in the government's decision. In the balance was the image of a known victim, at a time when the identities of possible victims in the future from the release of the terrorists were unknown. "The head is against the deal, but the heart votes in favor," said Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin - and voted in favor.

Meanwhile in Iran

The Israeli public is, for the most part, blind to the heated debate among the country's leaders over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Now that the Shalit dilemma has been settled, this remains the central issue on the leaders' agenda. The American concern about the possible intentions of the prime minister and the defense minister is evident not only in the public visit by the new Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta earlier this month. The question has been raised recently in a large number of conversations and discussions, including during a visit by the new CIA chief, Gen. David Petraeus, and in meetings between top brass of the United States Army and their Israeli colleagues.

Not without connection to the Israeli attack potential, the Obama administration has recently increased its active concern with the Iranian atom bomb. The thwarted Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, which was made public last week, made the administration very angry but was also used for its purposes. The conspiracy - along with the International Atomic Energy Agency's report next month, which is expected to present proof for the first time that Iran is also pursuing the military track in its nuclear development - might well serve as a springboard for a new American initiative to tighten the sanctions on the ayatollahs' regime.

Opponents of an attack in Israel see these developments as justification for Israel not hastening to act on its own. Today the international community understands, much more than in the past, the gravity of the danger coming from Iran. Possibly this understanding will also be translated along practical lines. The debate in Israel largely has to do with the question of timing.

Even among opponents to an attack some believe that, should all other options fail, a military action may be the only way out. According to Meir Dagan, there is still a lot of time: Iran will not obtain military nuclear capability before 2014 or 2015, and in any case a decision has not yet been taken in Tehran as to whether to reach that goal. It stands to reason that the forum that holds most of the discussion of the Iranian threat is Netanyahu's octet.

The power relations there are balanced. It seems that in the pro camp are Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Apparently Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who in the past opposed an attack, has crossed into the Netanyahu camp. In the opponents' camp are Minister without Portfolio Begin, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

However, any future decision is a matter for a wider forum, the cabinet or the government. The octet does not have the legal authority to decide. From Netanyahu's perspective, even if those who voted for him are not aware of this, saving Israel from a second Holocaust is the real destiny for which he was elected.

The professional echelon's position against an attack at this time is sweeping, and this applies not only to the trio of Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Mossad head Tamir Pardo and Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen, who have all adopted the position of their predecessors.