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Will Shalit-Palestinian Swap Change Long-Term Middle East Peace Strategy?

October 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday freed more than 1,000 prisoners, including Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Gwen Ifill discusses the swap and its possible effects on longer-term Middle East peace strategy with Daniel Levy of the New American Foundation and Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine.

GWEN IFILL: For more on this, we have two views.

Daniel Levy worked as an adviser in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and is now a fellow at the New America Foundation. And Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He writes for various publications in the U.S. and the Middle East.

Daniel Levy, after such a standoff for so many years, who blinked?

DANIEL LEVY, New America Foundation: Well, the same deal has really been on offer for some time. So I think the decision, ultimately, more had to be taken on the Israeli side. That doesn’t mean that both parties didn’t climb down a little bit from the ladders they were on.

But I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu explained this in the context of the Arab spring, that there was perhaps a closing window for getting such a deal done with Egyptian mediation. I think that’s part of the story. I think Israel wanted to be a problem-solver, rather than just a problem-maker, in its relationship with the new Egypt.

But I also think this has to be seen in the context of how Israeli public opinion has shifted during the five years of Gilad Shalit’s captivity, a lot due to the work of the family. The move today was popular. It’s a political win, not without risks, but a political win for Netanyahu. And it allows him to first of all show he can make decisions and second of all to try to draw a line under a summer of social protests in Israel, and to start the new Parliament session at the end of this month after the Jewish holidays with a new conversation piece, rather than being blamed for economic issues.

GWEN IFILL: Hussein Ibish, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners are released for part of this deal for one Israeli soldier.

HUSSEIN IBISH, American Task Force on Palestine: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Was this a win as well for Hamas?

HUSSEIN IBISH: A huge win. It’s a very big win for them. And they needed it desperately.

They were reeling, I think, from a combination of the consequences of their own, I would say, ineffective government, and in some ways misgovernment in Gaza, and especially because of Mahmoud Abbas’ surge in popularity after his very powerful and moving U.N. speech and the whole initiative at the U.N. to kind of internationalize the problem-solving with the sort of peace process, which was very popular.

GWEN IFILL: Even though it didn’t succeed.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, it didn’t succeed. And it was — it’s — but it is still perceived as something in progress.

I mean, it was a — an important gesture. And it was very popular. I mean, I think the question of what is achieved and what’s not achieved is a matter of perception. Now, certainly, Hamas is going to say that all of the PLO and P.A. strategy of diplomacy, of negotiations, of institution-building is symbolic and what they have achieved is a real victory based on armed struggle.

And they’re going to use this to sort of pose their own strategy of at least the rhetoric of armed struggle, if not the practice of armed struggle, against Abu Mazen. But you do have to understand I think that they did climb down a great deal on their demands. And they did do this, I think, out of a certain degree of desperation.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Levy, how did this become such a cause célèbre, this at the time 19-year-old soldier who was held, the entire nation hanging on his every — his — hanging on his future? How did he become such a folk hero?

DANIEL LEVY: Well, I mean, some commentators in Israel, Gwen, have been talking about the fact that Israel is such a small community, that this really was the behavior of a community. Someone even used the word of a shtetl, going back to Jewish life in Eastern Europe, rather than the behavior of a sovereign nation-state.

And I think really the explanation for why people feel like that, in addition to, of course, it being a small country, everyone serving, or at least everyone in mainstream Jewish-Israeli society serving, is work that the family did, the work also that Israeli leaders did internationally in raising the profile of this issue.

You know, no one I think will know the name of any of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners either freed or slated for release, but everyone — it’s a household name, as you say, around the world, Gilad Shalit. And I think one looks at this, and it’s being described in the Israeli papers as a sad happy day. And one looks at this and sees, as your report showed, celebrations on both sides of the divide.

And one perhaps scratches one’s head and says, if there is a willingness to take a risk for peace — sorry — if there is a willingness to take a risk for the release of one soldier, why can’t one find the willingness to take a risk for peace, to actually get a deal that would create two states, end an occupation, rather than just releasing one soldier?

But it’s also a very human thing, Gwen, to personalize, to identify with the story of one person whose family have been really incredibly dignified and compelling in advocating for their son’s case.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, on the other side of this, we have this Hamas/Fatah split, in which Hamas came out smelling like a rose and Abbas wasn’t even in the country at the time that the deal was cut.

HUSSEIN IBISH: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Does this endanger the potential for unity talks?

HUSSEIN IBISH: I think it complicates the political situation greatly, because it bolsters Hamas and it evens the playing field a little bit.

Hamas has been on the defensive. Now, I agree with everything Daniel said about Gilad Shalit as an iconic figure. There is, however, a Palestinian figure among the prisoners held by Israel who is an iconic figure.

GWEN IFILL: But who was not released.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Who is not released. That is Marwan Barghouti, who is one of the most important Palestinian political figures. He’s a senior figure in Fatah, in President Abbas’ party.

And I think neither Israel nor Fatah wants Hamas to get the credit for the release of someone as important as Barghouti. So, while certainly Fatah and Abbas have taken a hit, a palpable hit with this, if you will, it’s not a mortal blow. And it wasn’t, I think, intended by Israel as a mortal blow, because if they had released Barghouti, I think that’s what it would have been — so, a slap certainly at Abbas, who has angered Israel, and a chance, again, to show not only to demonstrate a willingness to do imaginative things and cross red lines, which both Netanyahu and Hamas have done, but also, for Netanyahu, to work constructively with Turkey and with Egypt, which, you know, sort of counters this idea of Israel being isolated a little bit.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about that, Egypt’s role, Daniel Levy, because…


GWEN IFILL: … in the wake of the Arab spring and the uprisings we have seen in the region, how significant was it that Egypt was the go-between here?

DANIEL LEVY: It undoubtedly was significant.

I think the question one has to ask — and I don’t think we know the answer yet, Gwen — is, what this discussed SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military temporary, one hopes, regime in Egypt showing itself to be useful, or does this tell us something more profound about post-Mubarak Egypt?

Remember that, under Mubarak, Egypt tightly managed two files on the Israel-Palestinian arena. One was Palestinian reconciliation talks. The other was Shalit. On both of them, no progress was really made under Mubarak, perhaps intentionally. Perhaps Mubarak felt it important to have these files just to show he was useful and relevant.

Since Mubarak’s demise, there has been progress on both of those files. So I think the question is, what does this tell us about the new Egypt? Certainly, the more transparent, public, open role of the Muslim Brotherhood may allow for a more effective Egyptian role vis-a-vis Hamas and an internal Palestinian politics, if the Palestinians choose to go for unity, rather than continue division.

For Israel, it’s very unclear that this changes much of the picture with the broader Egyptian public, because, after all, Israel has made the concession in the face of pressure and leverage, not in the face of pragmatism.

GWEN IFILL: And, Hussein Ibish, does this change the picture at all in terms, if you can brief — I don’t know if it’s possible — on the longer peace process here?

HUSSEIN IBISH: I will, yes.

I don’t think so. I think this is a tactical political move on both parts by two sets of political leaderships that saw an immediate opportunity and a need to take action now, a chance and a moment to be seized. And they seized it. And they have achieved many things, but they haven’t changed the strategic equation. They haven’t changed the balance of power.

And I don’t think they have set the stage for a new phase in the conflict or a new round of peace talks. I think that’s going to have to wait.

GWEN IFILL: Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine, and Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation, thank you both very much.