One never knows what to say about the on again, off again negotiations to free Gilad Shalit and the seemingly unending media stories announcing an imminent deal. So one approaches this subject with some trepidation. But there are enough serious signals that haven’t been seen before that a deal is close, that it’s worthwhile considering what could happen and its possible impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. The outline of the proposal is that in return for releasing kidnapped IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, Israel will release 450 Palestinian prisoners including the most prominent, Marwan Barghouti.
What is different now from previous rumors of a deal? First of all (and you won’t see this mentioned in Ethan Bronner’s NY Times report because he never acknowledges such issues), the Israeli military censor has thrown up complete embargo over coverage of this issue. The only thing Israeli media can do is speculate about the matter. They can’t report on what any minister or intelligence officer or IDF commander might have to say. This is unprecedented in Israeli history as Haaretz notes. It can only mean that Israel realizes that any false note introduced into the mix could doom the negotiations. Even more importantly, this right-wing government is extremely sensitive to criticism from its farther right flank of the idea of freeing Palestinian terrorists. Blanket censorship is one way to dampen such criticism. Bronner doesn’t want to deal with the implication of the Only Democracy in the Middle East™ using censorship in order to manipulate political debate as this would not reflect well on Israel’s “democracy.”
Ever since Shalit’s kidnapping speculation has been rampant that Marwan Barghouti would be included in the exchange. He is the most respected Palestinian political leader (including Abbas and even Haniyeh) and a potential future leader of the PA. In fact, this Haaretz article speculates that the Palestinian prisoner’s freedom might expedite the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas and his replacement by Barghouti. In today’s Palestine, his role and stature is roughly akin to that of Nelson Mandela in apartheid era South Africa.
Now, apparently both sides are indicating this VIP (very important prisoner) is slated to be freed as well. So it becomes important to speculate how this might change the Palestinian political landscape. Given how depressing (for anyone seeking peace, which excludes the Netanyahu government) the current situation is, it’s important to note that even if Barghouti is released it doesn’t mean that this will single-handedly transform the situation for the better.
I’m afraid that the current Israeli government has proven itself adept at outwaiting and outsmarting a U.S. president and the PA. So it’s doubtful that a PA headed by Barghouti (were this to happen) could work any immediate miracles. But it is worthwhile speculating what might happen in the longer term. The Netanyahu government, secure and stable as it now seems, won’t be so forever. Indeed, if a strong PA leader comes on the scene, one that Israelis feel could be trusted to deliver on his promises and who could carry Hamas with him, then the electorate might feel more secure in electing a more forthcoming government. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a more pragmatic leader like Tzipi Livni could be elected within a year or so who might actually proceed to final status talks and negotiate a deal with the Palestinians.
Of course, there are many rivers to cross before we get to that point. But I think in the long-term this release could produce positive results for peace.
One aspect of Bronner’s reporting also calls out for critique:
Many governments, including that of the United States, want to end the embargo to relieve the suffering of the 1.5 million people in Gaza, especially after Israel’s military invasion 11 months ago, which destroyed thousands of homes and factories. But Israel has said it will not end until Mr. Shalit’s release.
Therefore, if a deal is really imminent, it may also signal the possibility of some opening of the commercial crossings.
First, no government has been willing to engage in any serious effort to oppose the Gaze siege despite the fact that is a clear breach of international law. So giving credit to nations for wanting the siege to end is an empty gift to them since they’re not willing to go to the mat to make it happen. Second, the idea that Israel will feel empowered to diminish Gaza’s suffering because Hamas has freed Gilad Shalit is laughable. Israel has SAID that it would do so and that the Shalit kidnapping is one of the developments that justifies continuing the siege. But given Israel’s hatred of Hamas and its imperviousness to the notion of honoring verbal commitments, the likelihood of ending the siege or even lessening it is practically nil.
And to use one of Walter Mondale’s best campaign lines: Ethan Bronner won’t say that. I just did.