Let's Make Sure to Ask the Right Questions About the Gilad Shalit Deal





10-31-11

Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College and the author of "Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine" (University of Texas Press).

The deal returning kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit to his home while setting free over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners has typically raised questions about who won and who lost in this exchange.  But is that the correct question to pose and does such a balance sheet approach offer much insight into the nature of the Middle East conflict?  Or rather, should we ask if the conventional perspective counting winners and losers obscures more than it reveals about this seemingly intractable conflict explaining, perhaps, more about why the peace process has died than about how a general disposition to broker an accord might be kept alive? 

No one predicted that an agreement on saving Sergeant Shalit could have been concluded by such disparate self-defined enemies as Hamas and an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu who, after all, wrote the primer on how negotiating with terrorists emboldens the Palestinian “them” while endangering the Israeli “us.”  As for Hamas leaders, they prefer to call Israel their Zionist enemy rather than their partner in trade.  Thus, while Prime Minister Netanyahu crossed every red line he has ever drawn, Hamas also violated many of its own proclaimed sacred principles.

The notion that Netanyahu won't compromise on what he states are his core convictions is simply belied by his actions.  Netanyahu can properly claim credit for a mission accomplished not only because it is wildly popular but also because it seems reasonable to the experts in Israel's security services charged with leading the country's battle against terror.  But assessing the Shalit deal only along the Israel-Hamas axis misses the other dimensions of these negotiations and underestimates the need for flexibility in what are widely acknowledged to be radically changed circumstances in the region.  Netanyahu's orbit of calculations undoubtedly included how best to deal with Egypt's military government in the midst of a transition with no clear end or outcome in sight as well as the potential end of the authoritarian regime in Syria to be replaced by a we-know-not-what kind of government.  And the possibility of recovering a measure of the international good will lost in what has become a relatively moribund peace process may have also pulled Netanyahu into this agreement.

For Hamas, too, the deal shows how circumstances can demand stepping away from cherished principles.  The agreement left so-called high value people in prison.  Relatively few of those freed will be returned to the West Bank, and some of those released will find themselves in another “exile” expelled from what they call their homeland to a number of foreign countries across the Middle East.  And just as Israel's government has defended its willingness to agree to a settlement that gives the country less than its leaders wanted or stated they would accept, so, too, has Hamas had to explain why it signed on to an accord without receiving all that it promised.    

An evolving and uncertain set of political circumstances clearly had an impact on why Hamas began to think of loosening the ideological strictures that had left it so little room to maneuver.  Ironically, the sense of dispossession has intensified for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip under Hamas rule.  Israel's economic blockade, though substantially lifted since the Turkish flotilla incident in 2010, still takes its toll.  The Arab Spring has added to the economic woes by redirecting attention from the Palestine problem to the Arabs marching not for a state but rather for a free society, resulting in diminished resources for Hamas' resistance.  Gaza's rulers have had to raise taxes and fees and cut benefits.  Protests against the Hamas government modeled on the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have been prohibited amidst multiple rumors that Hamas is losing its grip on power.  Locked in a struggle for primacy with the Palestinian Authority that has recently raised its profile with its bid to become a full member of the United Nations, Hamas was motivated as much by fear of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's spike in popularity as by the possibility that the UN maneuver might actually succeed and instill life into what had become a moribund peace process premised on what Hamas believed was an increasingly discredited notion of two states for two peoples.

Still there is a question about whether the so-called Shalit deal has any bearing on the possibility of resolving the Middle East conflict?  Two lessons that may be learned from the Shalit negotiation come immediately to mind.  One is that all sides are subjected to a variety of pressures from their people as well as from regional and global powers.   The second follows from the first.  All sides involved in the Middle East conflict may well find common ground to produce something tangible when the suffering becomes unbearable and/or the economy is laid waste, and the diplomatic leverage produces an attractive combination of incentives to meet popular needs as well as service particular political interests.

Ordinary Palestinians and Israelis are caught in a clash of diverse political forces that subject them to a multitude of conflicting imperatives.  For Palestinians the challenge of state building requiring the structuring of political life around institutions and laws in borders that can be charted on a map often collides with their national liberation struggle drawn from memories of past injustices and their condition of exile.  A state-building process calling for calculating the costs and benefits not only of policy options but also of adherence to sacred principles is constantly in conflict with the impulse to redeem Palestinians from their suffering and national catastrophe by what is widely believed the unrealizable promise to repossess all they have lost.

Israelis, too, are subjected to contradictory forces.  They insist on hermetically sealed security arrangements that no Palestinian political leader or movement can deliver, let alone guarantee.  But while Israeli leaders may not be able to surrender enough land to convince all Palestinians to put an absolute end to their dispute with the Jewish state, they may be able to offer enough to convince some significant political forces both within and without the region to render the conflict less able to arouse popular passions and thus less capable of attracting resources for the purpose of undermining arrangements that create the groundwork for coexistence and stability.  If Israel cannot get what it wants from all Palestinians, perhaps, it can get enough from some significant number of them and from other countries within and without the Middle East for an agreement that preserves the military balance of forces.  It may even begin to shift public opinion in its direction.  Such a deal may be sufficient to manage the conflict even if it does not bring a full resolution for all Palestinians or Israelis.  While there is little reason to feel particularly hopeful about the prospects for concluding even this kind of deal, it is important to understand the elements needed to construct a negotiating process that has any chance, however slim, of producing an agreement.


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