It is very important that Gilad Shalit return home safe and sound. The majority in Israeli public opinion favoring his release - despite the extremely high price - is a sign of the strength of Israeli society.However, one thing supersedes his actual return: that the prisoner-exchange deal be coupled with elements that renew the peace process.
The exchange of Shalit for many hundreds of Palestinian prisoners must not remain a technical, Shin Bet-like move that focuses on the prisoners' records and the painful public debate within Israeli society. If this is what the deal comes down to, it might change the internal Palestinian balance of power in a way that further encumbers a renewal of peace talks.
The Shalit deal must have an angle that could break the stalemate in peace negotiations. Even if more time is necessary, the exchange needs to involve the renewal of peace talks. Parallel to the work of the team headed by Hagai Hadas, a senior envoy should be appointed to link the deal to the peace process.
This is no mission impossible. Many international precedents have linked the release of prisoners to jump-starting peace talks. Nelson Mandela's release in February 1990 marked the opening of frank negotiations between South Africa's white rulers and the African National Congress, which ended with the formation of a democratic South Africa. In Ireland, too, the release of prisoners was linked to peace talks, and Belfast is now a city of peace.
You don't have to be a brilliant politician to realize that the line connecting a technical prisoner exchange with a move toward a peace process runs through the prisoner Marwan Barghouti.
If Barghouti is not released, the deal cannot have an element linked to the peace process. But if Barghouti is freed, the exchange could become a move with a distinct potential of becoming such a gesture.
Alongside the completion of the list of prisoners to be freed, terms for the renewal of peace talks must be agreed on with the Palestinian leadership. Barghouti's place in the process, which will begin after the deal is completed, should already be under discussion. If we fail to do this, we will miss a rare diplomatic opportunity that could be the last chance for Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation.
Merely by putting the senior political prisoners in one prison, Israel has allowed them to consolidate a political hierarchy and bring together Fatah and Hamas in ways that would have been impossible outside prison walls.
Barghouti is now perceived as the only link between Hamas and Fatah. If he is released due to Hamas' efforts, this perception will be significantly enhanced. His release will therefore allow for reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas in a format to be decided on before his actual release.
I am aware that linking the deal to the peace process could create delays. However, if Shalit goes free with us left to serve a life sentence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, we could lose more than we stand to gain.
The Gilad Shalit phenomenon, including the amazing public and political willingness to pay an unprecedented price, could become the leverage necessary to give the deal a historic dimension. It is very important that the Israeli generosity and Palestinian euphoria that it creates yield fruit for the whole region, which outweighs Shalit's physical return home.
The writer served as director general of the Foreign Ministry from 2000 to 2001.
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