Friday, October 14, 2011

Let's Make A Deal

The prisoner swap scheduled to take place next week -- over 1,000 Israeli-held prisoners for one kidnapped Israeli soldier -- has generated a great deal of speculation and analysis. There are so many potential dots associated with this surprising bargain that need to be connected -- so many players, so many "under the table" components -- that virtually anybody with even a half-baked "insight" has felt compelled to rush forward with a "thoughtful" interpretation of what looks on the surface to be a hard-to-swallow transaction. The more dots, the grander the interpretation and more fanciful the account of the Gilad Shalit deal, bordering on full-blown conspiracy theories. The consumer of analytical pieces on the Arab-Israeli conflict oftentimes feels that he who connects the most dots wins: whoever manages, by dint of knowing obscure facts and being privy to the "inside baseball" machinations of all the players, to create a grand unifying theory that ties together every loose end has probably got the story right.

In this case, however, the less dots connected, the closer one comes to what I believe is the true story.

The most grandiose "connect all the dots" interpretations have come from not a few Israeli journalists, usually of leftist sympathies, and also from the Iranian media, who have speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is "clearing the decks" of all old business, thereby strengthening his domestic stature, in anticipation of launching a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. In this version of things "as they really are," even this week's US announcement of the uncovering of a sinister Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on American soil is part of the groundwork in anticipation of a coordinated attack on Iran.

If, however, we step back from these preposterous conspiracy tales and concentrate on the principal players in the deal, we might draw a different conclusion.

Who then are the players? First, we have HAMAS in Gaza and to a lesser degree in Damascus. Second, we have the Israeli coalition government of PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Third, we have the Egyptian military junta (the "Supreme Council of the Armed Forces"; or SCAF) in Cairo. Finally, we have the exchangees and their surrogates: on the Israeli side we have Gilad Shalit's family and friends; and on the Palestinian side we have hundreds of detainees, some convicted of murder, some detained for less weighty security reasons. Seen from this more direct perspective, we don't have so many dots to connect.

Instead, what we have is a deal that makes sense for everyone involved. As with all plausibly successful transactions in the Arab-Israeli conflict, everyone can walk away claiming victory, and everyone also loses.

First, let's look at HAMAS. HAMAS hasn't had much going for it in recent months. Inside Gaza, HAMAS was reportedly losing its popularity, unable to convincingly move the needle in any positive way for the residents of the Strip. A unification deal with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority unraveled, and the PA campaign at the UN left HAMAS without a viable strategy. The component of HAMAS based in Damascus was also facing the prospect of diminished influence as Syria descended into near-civil war. So it made sense for HAMAS to slightly alter its negotiating stand in the Shalit package in order to sweeten the deal for Israel, and thereby gain back a bit of stature.

On to the Israelis: PM Netanyahu has just passed through a very difficult summer domestically and internationally. The unprecedented "social justice" campaign and the continued uncertainty created by the Arab Spring caused the typically reluctant Netanyahu to take a decision on a matter of national consensus, to bring a hapless soldier home from captivity. With the military and intelligence communities prepared to sign off on a slightly sweetened package, Netanyahu likely saw a window of opportunity suddenly open and soon close, and took the deal.

Interlocutor Egypt has faced growing domestic and international opprobrium, the latter directly related to SCAF's sclerotic response to last month's momentary crisis with the Israeli embassy fiasco. SCAF's standing hardly improved in the wake of the Maspero pogrom this month. Here was a chance to rehabilitate the international respectability of SCAF.

A sidebar to this story is the heroic status of the Shalit family in Israeli reckoning. It is not easy for outsiders to understand the special status that families of hostages hold in Israeli society. Some observers of Israel stand in awe of the special regard such families tend to receive; on the other hand, Israeli leaders can be drawn into entertaining ridiculously lopsided arrangements because of the cultural status accorded such families by the media and political elites. Even so, the Shalits have been relatively ineffective in hastening their son's homecoming.

The Palestinian detainees, particularly the hardcore HAMAS vanguard, have practiced the art of sumud ("steadfastness") to perfection. A few of the soon-to-be released detainees have been under Israeli detention for over 30 years, and those that are not being released have reportedly accepted their fate for the sake of their brothers and sisters. Israel clearly crossed through some of its so-called "red lines" -- but not all. It is not the first bitter pill to be swallowed by the Israelis in such deals, but in the end it looks like it was HAMAS that blinked most recently, allowing for the deal to be made.

The outlines for this deal have been on the table for over 3 years. With every delay, the terms of the deal tightened. All 3 players stumbled into an international environment which begged for closure to this one tiny irritant against a complex weave of problems which cannot be resolved. The deal was always out there to be made. Reluctantly, they all stumbled into the chance to each improve their own standing, if only for a news cycle. Nothing more.

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