The most recognisable face these days in Israel is that of a missing person. His name is Gilad Shalit, a 23-year-old corporal held captive for more than three years in Gaza by the Palestinian movement Hamas. The sensational press constantly report every shred of information about him – leaked more than often by not-so-reliable sources, thus creating an emotional rollercoaster for an entire nation.
But the dilemma facing Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is far from simple. Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinian militants who crossed the border into Israel in 2006, a year after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. A video released by Hamas just 10 days ago was the first visual sign of his good health. As a matter of tradition, negotiations between Israel and its neighbours are never on an equal basis. In June 2008, for example, Israel swapped five Lebanese convicted terrorists for the bodies of two of its dead soldiers. Now Hamas wants Israel to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit. One thousand for one, that’s the equation.
Netanyahu, it seems, would be crazy to agree. Some of the prisoners are being held in Israeli prisons for horrific and deadly acts of terror. Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniya, has said that after Shalit there will be “another Shalit and another Shalit and another Shalit”, until all his demands are answered. Can a responsible leader possibly agree to such terms? The US government, for example, is known not to negotiate prisoner swaps to gain the return of its kidnapped soldiers. The reasoning is that terrorists must never be rewarded for their crimes. On the other hand, Shalit was sent to the border by the government of Israel, which bears the responsibility to bring him back home. Is it really fair for a young soldier to get caught up in such games? But here the plot thickens even further. Danny Rubinstein, Israeli author and analyst of Palestinian affairs, says that an agreement with Hamas will have far-reaching consequences on the inner politics of the Palestinians. In fact, he says, “An agreement between Israel and Hamas would be like a bullet in the head for the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.”
Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party are at loggerheads over governing the Palestinian people. Releasing so many prisoners, says Rubinstein, would be perceived as a tremendous success for Hamas, thus ridiculing Abbas in the eyes of his people. Israel might not be a huge fan of Abbas, but much less so of his militant opponents in Gaza.
The end is yet to be seen. In the meantime, Netanyahu is trying to barter for the best bargain he can. But as in so many other cases in the region, Israel remains without any really good cards in its hand.