When I lived in Israel as a student during the 1970s, there used to be a popular gesture Israelis used to denote doing something ass-backwards. They’d reach with their right hand all the way round the back of their head to grab their left ear as if to say: if you wanted to scratch your left ear, why wouldn’t you just use your left hand to do so?
Time Magazine describes precisely such an ear-scratching scenario regarding Israel’s strange negotiating posture for the release of Gilad Shalit:
Having secured the release of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston on July 4th, Hamas officials are now moving discreetly to negotiate freedom for another Gaza hostage — Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit…is currently being held by kidnappers who include members of Hamas’ own military wing, as well another radical group, the Popular Resistance Committees.
An investigation by TIME reveals a marked contrast in how the Israelis and Hamas view their complicated on-again, off-again negotiations over Shalit’s release. The disconnect arises partially out of Israel’s refusal to deal directly with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization. While some informed Israelis say they are “optimistic” that Shalit will be free “within weeks,” Hamas officials are far more cautious — one offered the glum assessment that bargaining could drag on for another year.
Israeli military officials and Hamas officials told TIME that the two sides are able to negotiate on the issue via Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and also in direct talks between Israelis and senior Hamas commanders imprisoned in Israel. The inmates then smuggle messages to the Hamas leadership via lawyers and relatives visiting them in prison.
Israel, boxed in by its own announced refusal to recognize, talk to or deal with Hamas finds it treif to actually speak with those Hamas representatives on the ground who hold the keys to Shalit’s release. Hence my “ass backwards” reference at the beginning of this post. In this case, artificial constraints which have never served any effective purpose in terms of advancing Israeli policy, prevent the most effective approaches to bring Shalit home.
Time also describes a huge amount of political maneuvering and dickering between the sides which doesn’t speak well to Olmert’s avowed wish to expedite Shalit’s release:
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to a Tel Aviv-based intelligence official, is refusing to release any prisoners who aren’t Hamas. (Hamas asked for freedom for members of other Palestinian factions, as well as foreign terror suspects in Israeli hands.) Apparently, Olmert wants to avoid Hamas being seen to gain legitimacy among the Palestinian public by securing prisoner releases, according to this source.
Hamas wisely realizes that it must be ecumenical in working for the release of a wide range of Palestinian prisoners. How would it look to Palestinians who don’t support Hamas if it only asked for the release of its own? The fact that Olmert balks at this provision indicates how he’s willing to hold the fate of an Israeli soldier hostage to narrow political calculations. When Gilad Shalit, in the tape Hamas released of him recently, asked Olmert to do more to gain his release, we can now see precisely why he said that:
One Hamas official…blamed Israel for attempting to “sabotage” the prisoner swap. Egyptian Intelligence Chief Suleiman was quoted in the Israeli press as telling Israeli leftist politicians recently that Olmert was “stalling” and must show some flexibility towards Hamas.
Israel and Hamas remind me of wily old heavyweight fighters in the ring in the 10th round. They’re both exhausted and in a clinch rather than separating so they can slug it out. Each one is waiting for the other to make a move, neither wants to give an advantage to the other. You can only play chicken for so long. At some point, someone has to make a move to seal this prisoner exchange deal but neither one wants to be the first because that would give an advantage to the other side:
As canny observers of Israeli politics, Hamas knows that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could use the freeing of Shalit to boost his plummeting popularity. Meanwhile, the Israelis reckon that Hamas could capitalize on the exchange of hundreds of prisoners as a way to improve their support among Palestinians, and their international standing.
It’s odd that I find almost nothing sympathetic about Hamas, its political agenda or tactics. Yet time after time, they appear to exhibit the more pragmatic and sensible approach to issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians. Time after time, they outmaneuver the politically inert Olmert:
Hamas officials urge Israel to speak directly with them, since they were freely elected in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, and they now exercise control over Shalit’s kidnappers in Gaza. “We are willing to talk directly to the Israelis,” says one Hamas official. “So why are the Israelis play the ostrich with us? They’re willing to talk with our men in jail but not to us directly.”
Even if you don’t find anything palatable about Hamas, you could still realize the sensible nature of this statement. Olmert has his priorities screwed up. He should be bringing Shalit home. Instead, he’s fulminating about giving Hamas an advantage in the political shell game the two sides are playing with each other. And he’s doing this not from strength as Sharon did when he negotiated a prisoner exchange several years ago. Olmert is rendered immobile in this circumstance by his feeble political position. He can’t offend anyone on his right for fear that he will give an advantage to his own domestic enemies, Netanyahu and the Likud. This is a perfect example of a government frozen in its pitiful weakness and irrelevance.