Tel Aviv, Israel. July 2011. Photo: Jeremy Pressman

A number of reasons have been offered for the deal between the government of Israel and Hamas that is expected to lead to a prisoner trade. Does it represent anything larger than a prisoner swap? I am skeptical.

1. Hamas cut a deal because it is weak.

Though Hamas runs Gaza and thus oversees over 1.6 million Palestinians, it is not in a strong position. Israel pounded Hamas in 2008-09, the Israeli blockade of Gaza has constrained growth and re-building, and the crisis in Syria could undermine a key Hamas ally, the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Hamas has its headquarters in Syria and receives aid as well. Most recently, Hamas’s rival, Fatah, received a political bounce from President Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal for UN membership for Palestine. Some reports claim it was Hamas that showed flexibility on the key details of the exchange. (Ben-Yishai’s phrasing: “it seems Hamas had to elasticize its stance considerably.”)

That said, the prisoner deal itself should help Hamas, especially as scenes of joyous Palestinian families greeting their just-released loved ones unfold again and again in the coming days. Fatah can take zero credit while Hamas can point to a military operation five years ago that yielded 1,000 prisoners. Given the centrality of the prisoners issue in Palestinian politics, this is significant. Hamas is still boxed in (literally), but this deal scores many political points if it happens (especially if it means much closer Egypt-Hamas ties.)

It also reminds me of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Hamas claimed its steadfast military resistance had forced Israel to close its Gaza settlements. Fatah, despite years of negotiations with Israel, had nothing similar to show for it. The lesson taken then, and perhaps now again, is that military force, not talks, brings results. With 4,000+ Palestinians still in Israeli jails even if this exchange goes through, this is more than merely an academic lesson.

2. Netanyahu: “This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”

Upon announcing the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his explanation for the “why now” question:

“With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all for that matter,” he said. “This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”

With Egyptian elections starting in late November, perhaps an Egyptian government less willing to mediate will emerge. Perhaps changes in Syria would have affected Hamas willingness to make an exchange. In short, given the pace of regional change and the HIGH level of uncertainty, Israel might not always have this opportunity. But I think Daniel Levy is exactly correct in asking (point #7) what that then means for all of Israeli policy given the Arab uprisings. If the Arab spring meant moving on Shalit policy, what does it or should it mean for peace process policy? To put it another way, why did the Netanyahu government negotiate with Hamas terrorists here while it refuses to do so on the larger Israeli-Palestinian issues that could re-shape the future for all Israelis? Why has Bibi boldly acted vis a vis Shalit but hunkered down under the same old slow-motion policy regarding Abbas and the drive for peace talks? Bringing home Gilad Shalit is not the only issue on which the window may close.

Now issues can be different. Leaders need not be all visionary or all status quo-oriented. But the absence of a strategic vision in the Netanyahu government – I reject the idea that waiting out the storm and building more settlements is a strategic vision for Israeli survival – is striking. If, as Levy asserts, this exchange will strengthen Netanyahu politically (79% of Israelis favor the deal), the question is whether he will do anything productive with his newly-found political capital. The answer? I’ll side with Ian Black in the Guardian: “This deal is a narrow one, more important emotionally than politically.”


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