Thursday night’s speech was one of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s best performances yet. Standing at his podium, he addressed the public live, in Hebrew at prime time and just before the start of the weekend (to make sure good moods all round). His speech was watched by millions. The Shalit family and fellow protesters listened to the speech via loudspeakers mounted on cars as they continued their protest march. They waited for a hint their son Gilad – who’s been in captivity for four years – may be coming home. They were disappointed, but then again anything other than an announcement of a deal would have had the same effect.
Netanyahu meanwhile was in his element – explaining to the Israeli public how he’s doing the best for them, even if they can’t see it now. Daddy Bibi knows best, trust him. The PM, grandson of one of Zionism’s most renowned orators Nathan Milikovsky, comes from a long line of great talkers. On Thursday he delivered a difficult message, and made himself sound like a hero all at the same time.
But the PM didn’t choose to make this speech, he had to. Over the past six days the Shalit family have led thousands of protesters on a march from their home in the north to Jerusalem (the PM’s residence). They have sworn not to return home without their son, and through that pledge have captivated the sympathy and support of the nation (and crucially the media). In a country where everyone was a soldier, is a soldier or will be a soldier nothing is taken more seriously than the capture of one of their own. The marcher’s message is bring Shalit home at any price. Last night Netanyahu made clear what Hamas is demanding is too expensive. Hamas has no incentive to bargain with its most (perhaps only) prized possession. That’s why Shalit is still a long way from home.
The Deal Breaker
The terms of the latest prisoner exchange deal, negotiated by German mediator Gerhard Konrad, was meant to be kept hush hush. That was one of Konrad’s demands and it’s a style that has served him well in the past. But between Hamas and Israel (and Twitter), there is no such thing as a secret in this part of the world. As such, Netanyahu’s release of the terms and Isrel’s position were hardly a surprise.
One thousand Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier. More importantly, 450 so-called “heavyweight” prisoners, chosen by Hamas, is the demand. The PM says these men and women are “ready to go” – but go where is the problem. Hamas wants them released to their homes in the West Bank, a move that would bolster the movement’s authority in the territory it all but gave up in 2007 when it took over the Gaza Strip. Israel won’t allow it, saying that if Hamas wants the release of the heavyweight prisoners they’ll have to be expelled outside the territories and Israel. This is a decision, they say, based on security concerns that the prisoners will commit more attacks against Israelis. But this is a price Israel (in fact Netanyahu himself) has paid in the past for the sake of releasing soldiers. Even the Egyptians have argued that Israel has the means to monitor these prisoners after release and stop them re-offending.
But it may be that Israel (and the Palestinian Authority for that matter) is more afraid of these men choosing non-violent/political form of resistance than returning to the violent kind. In the fractured and fragile political arena that exists in the West Bank, the entrance of certain Hamas heavyweights will change the rules of the game for everyone.
The Final Round
According to Hamas leader Mahmoud al Zahar, there have been 120 rounds of talks on a Shalit deal so far. The movement claims that along the way, two sets of Israeli establishments (under ex-PM Ehud Olmert and then Netanyahu) have spoiled deals - showing they are not really interested in an exchange. But Hamas is in no hurry to resolve this issue and is asking a right-wing government (in trouble internationally and domestically at the moment) to agree to difficult concessions.
For all their criticism, the Israeli public doesn’t blame Netanyahu for Shalit. He was taken on Olmert’s watch and so, whatever happens, he’ll be part of Olmert’s legacy. As such, Netanyahu has little to gain (beyond short term adulation from the family and their supporters) and much to lose from the prisoner trade that he laid out on Thursday.
For that reason, Shalit’s release can only come about as part of a larger deal involving the (actual not partial) lifting of the Gaza siege and perhaps even within the framework of an overall peace initiative. There has to be more at stake in this fight and more fighters need to enter the ring – namely the Americans who so far have insisted on separating the issue of Gaza and Shalit from a larger peace deal. Hamas and Israel will keep sparring, with their German referee in the middle, until someone decides its time for a knockout.