Sderot and Shalit, Hostages Together

Hamas wants its prisoners in exchange for Shalit, and the Rafah crossing in exchange for an end to the Qassam rocket attacks.

"We are holding indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas," was the way Omar Suleiman, Egypt's chief of intelligence, described his mission to Israel. Egypt, according to Suleiman, is just a mediator on a neutral mission of goodwill.

The reality is different. Egypt needs the lull no less than Israel or Hamas. Egypt, like Hamas, needs the Rafah crossing open no less than Israel needs, at least for a while, the threat to Sderot and Ashkelon lifted. The proposed tahadiyeh [truce] Israel has been offered is not coming from Hamas alone, but is a joint Egyptian-Hamas offer - arguably more from Egypt than from Hamas. According to the public statements of the Hamas spokesmen, Egypt has given them guarantees that even if Israel rejects the proposal, Egypt will open the Rafah crossing.

As such, what Israel is being asked to decide on is an ultimatum: Accept the six-month hiatus in the fighting, and if it works, it will slowly come to include the West Bank; or Israel rejects the offer and chooses the military option. According to this equation - assuming the statements of the Hamas leadership on an Egyptian commitment are true - the Rafah crossing will open in any case. The main issue now is what will the showcase look like: Will the opening of the Rafah crossing appear to be a gift to Hamas, a gesture to Egypt or an Israeli victory?

However, none of these options can hide the heart of the matter: Israel's agreement to a cease-fire means giving up on the military option in the long term. Alas, there is no real concession here either. If Israel thought that the military option could restore calm, wipe out Hamas and the rest of the violent militias in the Strip, and restore life to normal, there were many chances for it to carry out such an operation during the past seven years.

Large- or small-scale military operations, the use of the air force, armor and infantry, imposing tough sanctions, assassinations - none have brought real change. The type of paramilitary force that has emerged inside the Gaza Strip is certainly incapable of destroying Israel, but it is preventing the government from fulfilling its obligation toward its citizens in terms of security and calm.

The possibility of "a really big" military operation remains in the air, something similar to the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, capable of restoring calm without the cost in prestige that the tahdiye now requires. But when looking at that virtual promise of military victory, it is a good idea to consider carefully Israel's response to Egypt. Israel is not threatening a military action against Hamas if it does not accept the proposal; it only wants to fatten up the price it manages to exact from Hamas. It wants Gilad Shalit - something that will convince the Israeli public that its government did not give in to the pressures of a terrorist group, in the worst case scenario, or to Egyptian interests, in the best case. This is a reasonable ambition, but it does not appear to be realistic.

Hamas wants its prisoners in exchange for Shalit, and the Rafat crossing in exchange for an end to the Qassam rocket attacks. Two separate deals, two separate shows of gain. This is the nature of the organization, and this is the substance of the negotiations.

By the way, Israel still can, if it wants to, get Shalit if it releases the prisoners that Hamas wants, irrespective of the tahdiye. But Israel cannot break free from its commitment to gain the release of Shalit, because it insists it is ready only for a collective deal, and it cannot delay the tahdiye, because it does not ensure the release of Shalit. Such an equation transforms Sderot into a hostage for Shalit and Shalit a hostage for Sderot. This is a stance that only makes sense if one assumes that Hamas is in dire straits, or that Egypt holds tremendous leverage to persuade Hamas to agree to Israel's demand.

This is an assumption for which hard facts are very difficult to come by, especially if we recognize that Egypt is not ready to be faced, once more, with a breached wall - and will open the Rafah crossing. On the other hand, the insistence on the linking the deals may result in Shalit's staying a prisoner and the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon remaining under fire. So long as Israel assesses that the indirect negotiations with Hamas can bear fruit, what is the point of positing a twin obstacle to the success of at least one of the deals?