October 24, 2011 Edition 30 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The prisoner exchange and the peace process
Not relevant to the real issue  - Yossi Alpher
The deal reduced the likelihood of a productive peace process, but this is hardly an earthshaking event.

No impact on a dead process  - Ghassan Khatib
It was implemented at a time when the peace process has become stagnant.

Short-lived ramifications  - Shlomo Brom
The notion that kidnapping Israelis is the best way to release prisoners is deeply rooted in the Palestinian psyche.

Israel sets the terms  - an interview with Mustafa al-Sawwaf
Israel believes the siege on Gaza supports its security interests.

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Not relevant to the real issue
 Yossi Alpher
The best hint the Middle East could provide as to the ramifications of last week's prisoner exchange for the overall conflict came two days after the exchange itself. It was the dramatic death of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. The pace of events in the region, particular in light of the Arab revolutions surrounding Israel and Palestine, is so great and so varied and unpredictable that no single event involving repatriated prisoners could possibly have a lasting effect.

Yet even if the ramifications in and of themselves are likely to be relatively short-lived, a few of them stand out because they dovetail with and strengthen previously-existing political dynamics. One is the timing: whether by design or accident, in raising the public profile of Hamas the exchange tends to dwarf Fateh and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, shortly after Abbas' seeming triumph in presenting his bid for state recognition to the United Nations in late September. Both Hamas and the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opposed and criticized the Palestine Liberation Organization's UN bid. Hence they would appear to share an interest in exploiting their prisoner exchange to diminish its impact on the Palestinian and broader Arab street.

A second ramification concerns Hamas' overall strategic standing as ruler of the Gaza Strip. By dealing at length with the Hamas leadership through the good offices of Egyptian military rulers--who in turn appear to be cultivating close cooperation with Hamas' parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood--Israel has strengthened Hamas' leadership profile in Gaza. Some might argue that this also strengthens Hamas on the West Bank and on the overall Palestinian political scene. But that effect, if it happens, is likely to be countered actively by both the West Bank-based PLO and the Netanyahu government.

This is not the case regarding Gaza. Given Netanyahu's obvious reticence to engage in a genuine two-state deal with Abbas--it negates his own ideology and would bring down his coalition--he is presumably happy to contribute to the strengthening of the current three-state or three-entity reality: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. After all, it facilitates a status quo that he can live with politically, particularly at this time of unrest in neighboring Arab states.

Not that Netanyahu is now likely to seek a broader dialogue with Hamas: his ideal situation calls for quiet on both the West Bank and Gaza fronts, yet without any meaningful political engagement. He can even draw temporary encouragement from the fact that the prisoner swap helped strengthen Israel's relationship with the Egyptian regime without, apparently, inviting new pressures to deal more forthrightly with the Palestinians, as would have been the case under Hosni Mubarak. Of course, peaceful stalemate on two Palestinian fronts is not a sustainable reality. But that seemingly does not perturb the Israeli prime minister.

Thus the prisoner deal reduced the likelihood of a productive Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But this is hardly an earthshaking event. After all, the prospects were practically non-existent even before the swap, and not just thanks to Netanyahu.

Abbas opted many months ago to pursue UN recognition because he believes that this strategy can strengthen his chances of achieving a state in the West Bank, along something close to the 1967 lines, with a capital in East Jerusalem. In parallel, he has apparently concluded that no Israeli leader--across the political spectrum from Ehud Olmert to Netanyahu--will ever agree with him on the pre-1967 "narrative" issues of the right of return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and additional holy sites. This is his unspoken reason for abandoning negotiations.

Abbas, in other words, is opting for a partial, territorial solution imposed in part by the international community. Sadly, Netanyahu fails to see the advantage for Israel in getting out of the West Bank, with adequate security provisions and a stable neighbor, thereby preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state--even at the cost of recognizing that there can be no dramatic "end of conflict" or "end of claims" with that neighbor.

The prisoner exchange and its ramifications have little direct relevance for this compelling reality, which remains the real focus of Israeli-Palestinian relations.-Published 24/10/2011

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

No impact on a dead process
 Ghassan Khatib
Perhaps surprisingly to some, the exchange of prisoners negotiated between Israel and Hamas, with Egypt's mediation, might not have any impact at all on the peace process. This deal was most remarkable in its overwhelmingly positive reception by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Israelis were a little bit cautious but mostly supportive. Palestinians, for their part, considered it a huge achievement.

Despite this "win-win" outcome, it is difficult for any deal to have an impact on a political process that simply no longer exists.

The prisoners' swap was implemented at a time when the peace process has become stagnant. It is so defunct that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his allies, who are strongly committed to that process, went to the United Nations to ask the world to look for new approaches for peacemaking different from the bilateral negotiations process established at the Madrid conference in 1991.

Still, many analysts have tried to make linkages between this deal and the prospect of the resumption of the peace process. Some were pessimistic, suggesting that the deal would empower Hamas and strengthen the movement's typical argument that Israel does not understand the language of peace and responds only to the language of force. It is for this reason, Hamas says, that Israel was reluctant to stop the expansion of settlements in the framework of talks with the moderate Palestinian leadership, while it was willing to concede on releasing prisoners in negotiations with the hard-line faction Hamas.

The other dominant line of analysis was that the successful implementation of this deal between Hamas and Israel might open the way for agreements between them on other issues: reducing the closure and blockade on Gaza, for one.

What I think is more pertinent is that the timing of this deal was obviously political. Leaks about the years of negotiations over the prisoner swap package indicate that the majority of its elements were already on the table but had not yet come to be seen as satisfactory by either Hamas or Israel. It was changing political realities for both parties that convinced each to accept what they had previously sought to improve.

The balance of power in Palestinian society shifted recently in favor of rival faction Fateh due to Abbas' principled stand that negotiations not be renewed without an Israeli settlement freeze, combined with his challenge to Israel and the United States in calling for full membership for Palestine at the UN. This shift meant Hamas needed to use its strong cards to trump Fateh and bring about some balance in public opinion.

Internal politics were also decisive in bringing the Israeli government to the deal. The persistent and effective campaign of Shalit's family and friends contributed to creating public support for the exchange. This made the exchange a political asset for Netanyahu, who used it to increase his political cache. Facing internal challenges from ongoing social justice protests, Netanyahu needed a political achievement that would turn the public's gaze elsewhere. Also, the crisis in the peace process had brought him increased international criticism and pressure.

The only clear analytical conclusion one can draw from this exchange, then, is that the Palestinian prisoner issue must be a component of any future agreement with Israel. The joy felt in all Palestinian towns and villages this week showed just how dear the plight of the prisoners is to most Palestinians. Indeed, it is difficult to find a Palestinian family that has not had a member imprisoned in Israel, experiencing the grief, fear and loss endured by the family of now-released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.- Published 24/10/2011 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Short-lived ramifications
 Shlomo Brom
The exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, after years of campaigning and negotiating is a dramatic event that deeply affects Israeli public opinion and probably also Palestinian public opinion. Naturally, there is a tendency to look for broad and long-term implications of this recent development.

Some commentators look at the perceived negative implications of the deal and argue that it is going to encourage further attempts to kidnap Israelis. It convinces Palestinians that the release of thousands more of their countrymen who are still in Israeli prisons can be achieved only in this way rather than through political agreements with Israel. These commentators also argue that released Palestinian terrorists will return to terrorist activities and the risk to Israeli lives will increase. And they claim that the Hamas movement will be strengthened and Fateh weakened, thereby causing a change in the political balance of power in the West Bank and precipitating a takeover by Hamas and, accordingly, the end of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Others look at what are perceived as positive implications of this development and submit that it will change the atmosphere among the two publics and make them more forthcoming towards one another, thus facilitating the resumption of fruitful dialogue and negotiations. They suggest that the deal will normalize the relationship between Hamas and Israel, bringing about stabilization of the Israel-Gaza Strip border and possibly also continuation of a dialogue between the two.

A closer look at all these arguments leads to the conclusion that most probably the effects of this deal will be short-lived. In the longer term, the main developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the negotiations process will still be determined by the more basic parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

The notion that the kidnapping of Israelis is the best way to achieve the release of Palestinian prisoners is deeply rooted in the Palestinian psyche. But after so many prisoner exchanges, one more case does not generate real change. When, for five years, Israel refused the deal with Hamas, attempts to take additional Israeli hostages did not stop. Indeed, the delay only led to the conclusion that more hostages are needed. It would have required many more years of Israeli refusal to generate a new Palestinian awareness that hostages are not useful.

As to the contribution of the released prisoners to future terrorist acts, proponents and opponents of this argument each present their own different statistics regarding past releases and recidivism. But a pin-point analysis of this particular release and its circumstances in the Palestinian areas leads to the conclusion that the effect on terrorism will probably be very limited. A large proportion of the released prisoners returned to the Gaza Strip where they can have no effect on what is almost the only possible method of operating against Israel, namely use of rockets and mortars. And the prisoners returning to the West Bank will be relatively easy to monitor because of the improved capabilities of the Israeli and Palestinian Authority security services.

Past experience also shows that those who return to terrorist activity are mostly young prisoners sentenced to short terms in prison and released after their sentences expire. Israeli prisons only serve as a school for terrorism for this group. The more senior released prisoners who were the focus of public opposition to the deal in Israel because of their past atrocities usually rest on their laurels and enter political and public activity, capitalizing on their prestige within Palestinian society.

As for political implications, the prisoner release undoubtedly increases the prestige of Hamas, thus hurting Israel's negotiating partners. But this effect pales in the face of the complete stalemate in the negotiations process. If the Palestinians need proof that negotiations and dialogue with Israel get them nowhere, they already have ample evidence. Yet this has not changed the dominant view in Palestinian society that rejects resumption of violent resistance (the Hamas way).

There is no reason to believe that this episode of prisoner release will alter this strong trend, especially when Abu Mazen and Fateh have succeeded in crystallizing this majority among the Palestinian public by offering it a combination of working with the international community (the UN bid) and non-violent popular protest. Anyway, as long as the West Bank continues to be occupied by Israel there is no way Hamas can take over the Palestinian Authority, and it is very doubtful whether the Hamas figures released to the West Bank can reconstruct the shattered Hamas political and military infrastructure there.

The negotiations process is stalemated because of the domestic political situation on both sides and because the two parties that are supposed to negotiate have no trust in each other and do not believe that resumption of negotiations will lead to an agreement they can accept. The latest prisoner exchange deal did not change these basic parameters. On the contrary, in making this deal Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu increased Palestinian mistrust by completely ignoring the needs of his negotiating partner, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and refusing to release Fateh prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti.

Finally, the situation along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel is stable because of a combination of Israeli deterrence following the campaign of late 2008-early 2009 and the lifting of an important part of the siege of Gaza. Further modifications in the movement of goods and persons to and from Gaza will not make a real difference. Of course, there are no guarantees that this relative stability will last; more rounds of violence are possible. And neither the Israeli government nor Hamas is interested in formal political dialogue. Some informal track-two dialogues were possible before the prisoners' exchange, and are possible after it as well.-Published 24/10/2011 ©

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.

Israel sets the terms
an interview with  Mustafa al-Sawwaf
bitterlemons: Why did Hamas seek to carry out the prisoners' swap at this time?

Al-Sawwaf: I believe that the timing of the swap was in Israel's hands, not in Hamas'. When Israel agreed to the conditions of the Palestinians, the swap was achieved. If Israel had agreed a year ago, then it would have been accomplished a year ago.

Israel tried to gain time to gather intelligence information to free [captive Israeli soldier Gilad] Shalit by force; when this failed, the swap was carried out.

bitterlemons: Some people say that the possibilities for a meaningful peace process are greater now because Hamas can participate. Others say that the peace process is in a worse position because its main advocate, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has been weakened. What do you think?

Al-Sawwaf: Hamas' understanding of peace differs from the Israeli and western one. Hamas believes in freeing all of Palestine, but it also believes in an interim solution. [In this case,] the interim peace doesn't match the Israeli, American and European one. Simply speaking, for Hamas, it means establishing an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders in exchange for a long-term truce, with the possibility of returning to the resistance at any time to free the rest of Palestine.

bitterlemons: How great is the possibility, do you think, that the release of Shalit will lead to the ending or easing of the blockade on Gaza?

Al-Sawwaf: It's logical that Israel would end the siege if the reason behind it was the capture of Shalit, but I think the Israelis always have their own logic. I think Israel will ease it a little bit, but not end it.

Israel believes the siege supports its security interests and also believes that lifting the siege will achieve logistical interests for Hamas or its military wing. This is totally incorrect because Hamas, or its military wing, relies on logistical means other than [Gaza's] borders with Israel. Hamas needs to end the siege because it is in the interest of the public [and to] facilitate the daily life of people in Gaza.

bitterlemons: There has been some speculation by Israeli analysts that [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu could be trying to "clear the table" before a strike on Iran. Others say that the release of Shalit means Israel is now free to wage another war on Gaza, or even Hizballah. Is war a likelihood? How does this release fit into the regional picture?

Al-Sawwaf: There is a difference between attacking Iran and attacking Gaza or Lebanon. The equation of Iran is complicated for Israel. Iran is a strong country and has enough power to retaliate. In addition, America won't allow Israel to carry out such stupidity because it threatens [United States'] interests n the Middle East.

On the other hand, the decision to attack Lebanon or Gaza has already been made by the political and military Israeli elite, but implementation depends on special circumstances that have nothing to do with keeping or freeing Shalit. Regional circumstances make it much more difficult for Israel to carry out a new war against either Gaza or Lebanon, especially since the "Arab spring".

bitterlemons: Do you think the reconciliation agreement will be implemented? Most Palestinians think this is a good thing in general, but do you think this is a good thing for the peace process?

Al-Sawwaf: The reconciliation is good only for the Palestinians, but not for negotiations [with Israel] or the peace process. President Abbas uses the reconciliation as a bargaining chip to gain the international community's support against Israel. Meaning, [he tells them either he will] reconcile with Hamas or the international community must pressure Israel to achieve [Abbas'] outstanding issues with Israel.

Generally speaking, the reconciliation is not a strategic option for Abbas. He used it in May to tell the international community that he represents all Palestinians in the September United Nations bid [for membership]. And he will use it again when he needs it.-Published 24/10/2011

Mustafa al-Sawwaf is a writer in Gaza who specializes in Islamic movement affairs.