THE Gilad Shalit deal, Shalit’s safe conduct home from Gaza after six years of incarceration in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails is – without doubt – one of the more fascinating chapters of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But it has to be understood in context, something that has been lacking in the current discourse surrounding the event.
For when Gilad Shalit, a teenage member of an IDF armoured brigade, was captured in 2006 by the Al-Qassam Brigades who’d burrowed under the Gaza wire, the Levant was still in the control of dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, men who acted as mediators between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
These were Arab leaders who would unquestioningly see to US and Israeli interests. In 2006 perceptions were completely different to what they are now. A hard bargain from Hamas would have had little truck in Cairo, whose leadership would have seen Hamas with the same jaundiced eye as its own Islamic Movement.
When Shalit was captured in 2006, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had already overseen the end of the ‘Arafat era, and had ensured the death knell of the Oslo Accords by persisting with illegal settlement building on the West Bank.
With Hamas on the post 9/11 US list of terror organisations and PA President Mahmoud Abbas officially declared persona non-grata by Sharon, Israel had earned – as former aide Dov Weisglass would have put it – its “no-one to talk to certificate”.
But this was to prove a brief respite for the Israeli hawks, so reluctant to engage with peace or Palestinian statehood. Sharon was cut short by his stroke and a much weaker man, Ehud Olmert, would take his place.
In January 2006 Palestinians (on the urging of President Bush) were sent to the polls and defied the script by voting Hamas into power. The covert arming by Bush (as revealed in Vanity Fair) of the PA strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, did not result in the expected overthrow of Hamas.
By July of that year, Israel under Olmert had invaded Lebanon in response to niggling incidents in southern Lebanon. The IDF lost several of its crack troops at the hands of Hizballah, whose intensity of challenge – and incessant rocket fire into Israel – was something it had not been fully prepared for.
In spite of Lebanese infrastructure being destroyed and one million people displaced, the Arab street rejoiced in what it perceived was victory. Israel, the invincible, had been humbled by Hizballah.
This, I think, was the turning point in the region – the event that planted the seed for the Arab Spring. I was in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon during the war. For the first time ever, I saw the Arab world cursing its leaders in the streets.
And when Benjamin Netanyahu, carping at Ehud Olmert, told the BBC that he should have razed Lebanon’s cities to the ground, I saw people laughing. For those who had little left to lose after decades of dictatorships, failed nationalisms and disastrous wars, the feared Zionist entity had become a joke.
For Gilad Shalit in his cell somewhere in Gaza this would have meant little. But in the larger scheme of things it was a big moment. The plates had shifted under the ground and an earthquake was imminent.
For Israel, who shares long borders with Egypt, Mubarak’s fall this February was an unexpected blow. The murderous hand of Gaza’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the Mavi Marmara killings in 2010 had proved disastrous, and now in 2011 Israel’s go-to man in the Middle East had gone.
According to the Middle East Monitor’s, Dawud Abdullah, the diplomatic role of Egypt with regards to Israel and the US changed to a less subservient one after Mubarak’s departure.
Egyptian mediation became more attuned to Arab interest, and with the aid of Turkey, Hamas and Fatah met in Cairo in April. This was followed by the PA’s campaign at the UN to get official recognition for a Palestinian state.
Facing a restless Israeli constituency, Netanyahu had to confront demands for Gilad Shalit’s release. Always a politician, though, his move was well considered. Opinion polls in Israel showed 79% approval of Shalit’s release, in spite of the clamour saying he’d capitulated to terrorists.
Then there was the fine print for the release of the first 477 Palestinians, 42% of whom would be deported and 11% of whom would face some form of house arrest.
There were also unfulfilled expectations. Marwan Barghouti (FATAH) and Ahmad Sa’adat (Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the most prominent inmates of Israeli jails, were left out of the deal.
Both are seen as major role players in Palestinian politics and integral personalities to any future peace process. There are those in FATAH who feel that Barghouti, a popular youth figure, could be its next leader.
Whilst Netanyahu basked in the euphoria of the release of Shalit, and tried to play down the Israeli negatives, Hamas, FATAH, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP also claimed victory. Their cadres came home to heroes’ welcomes.
Unfortunately, Gilad Shalit’s release – a positive event – has evoked intransigent response in Zionist quarters. This has clouded the issue. Melanie Phillips of the British Daily Mail, for example, told her readers that Shalit’s release had marked the “end of the peace process”.
By dealing with Hamas the Israeli government had sidelined Mahmoud Abbas, she claimed, describing Palestinian celebrations as an “obscene joy” and that Israel faced “genocidal Arab rejectionism”.
But as Wadi Abu Nasser, head of a Haifa think tank, pointed out to me last week. Israel did not deal directly with Hamas, but through German and Egyptian mediators. As for the peace process, there was no peace process. Oslo had been extinguished by Sharon.
However, there are several lessons to be learnt from Gilad Shalit’s exchange. The first is that if you negotiate with an enemy that you don’t necessarily have to like, the sky doesn’t fall in. The second is that genuine political compromise is measured by its positives, because there will always be unfulfilled articles of desire.
Thirdly, Israel is no longer in the untouchable position it was in the Middle East before the Arab Spring. The landscape has changed, and the nascent Arab governments – facing daunting challenges – will be expected to be far more demanding with regards to the peace process and international law.
Indeed, if any victory be granted in the Gilad Shalit deal, it is by a nose length the Palestinian one.