Diplomacy: What caused PM's change of heart on Schalit?

Hamas, it seems, has only itself to blame for Olmert's sudden stiffening of stance.

Olmert get off chopper 248.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert get off chopper 248.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni may be losing her battle for the prime ministership, but her vision of the post-Operation Cast Lead policies Israel should pursue toward Hamas and Egypt won out Wednesday at the critical security cabinet meeting that linked the release of Gilad Schalit to the opening of the Gaza crossings. By stating clearly that Israel would not open the crossings for anything other than humanitarian aid until Schalit was back with his family, and that Israel was not negotiating with Hamas, the government finally resolved a conflict at the top - among the troika of Livni, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak - that had been simmering from about midway through the Gaza military operation. And while the country naturally and understandably focused on the Schalit issue at Wednesday's security cabinet meeting, what was as important was the clear message the government sent that it would not be a party to any formal cease-fire with Hamas. "Israel is not negotiating with Hamas, or any other terrorist organization, in order to reach understandings or arrangements with it on a cease-fire," read a statement issued after the meeting. While at first blush that statement looked ludicrous, especially in light of the reports over the last few weeks of indirect negotiations through Egypt with Hamas to bring about a cease-fire, it is actually quite significant. What that statement says is that Hamas, whose spokesmen have been creating the impression that cease-fire negotiations are in full swing, is doing little more than talking to itself. "Some Hamas spokesmen are talking about a cease-fire for a year, and others are talking about 18 months," a senior government official said. "Some are insisting that Hamas be present at the Rafah Crossing. We are saying clearly that we are not there, we are not part of the conversation." Then what of the cease-fire? That was addressed in the final point of the security cabinet communiqué: "Israel will respond quickly, strongly and continuously to the continuation of terrorist actions against it from the Gaza Strip, including rocket fire, the smuggling of weapons and ammunition, and the strengthening of the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. In this context, Israel views Hamas as being solely responsible for everything that occurs in the Gaza Strip, and will exact a high price from it for the continuation of terrorist actions, including the smuggling issue." In other words, the security cabinet said there is no need for a formal agreement. If Hamas is quiet, Israel will be quiet; if Hamas fires, Israel will respond. And what all that adds up to - a rejection of any negotiations with Hamas through Egypt, and a whack-them-if-they-hit-you philosophy - is a victory for Livni's way of thinking about how to end Operation Cast Lead. Livni, throughout the three-week campaign, warned frequently that entering into any type of agreement with Hamas, even an informal one, would be tantamount to granting the organization legitimacy - something Israel definitely does not want to do. THOUGH MOST Israelis agree that the IDF's performance during the war was extremely effective and efficient, the top political echelon performed with less precision, bickering among itself toward the end of the war about how exactly it should be brought to a conclusion. Should Israel just stop firing and slam Hamas every time a rocket is fired on the Negev, as Livni proposed, or should it work towards a formal arrangement with the Egyptians that would govern a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, as Barak advocated? The Prime Minister took a middle-road position, stopping short of a full agreement, but wanting some kind of understanding with the Egyptians governing the situation in the South. Operation Cast Lead was, from a political standpoint, one of the oddest wars Israel has ever had to fight, because it took place in the heat of an election campaign, and electoral considerations were undoubtedly and understandably coloring the decisions of each member of the troika. There was speculation that among the reasons Barak wanted to pursue the Egyptian approach was because it was his office - through the now rather bitter Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-military bureau - that was leading the negotiations with Egypt, and he would get the political credit for any agreement. By the same token, it was speculated that one of the reasons Livni was less keen on an agreement through Cairo was because she was cut out of that loop, preferring instead to pursue separate understandings with the Americans and the Europeans - with whom she had good contact - to stop the arms smuggling. Livni, Barak and Olmert were obviously looking for a conclusion to the war that would make them look the best. IN THE end, or at least until Wednesday, Barak's approach had the upper hand. Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire; Hamas did the same (although it did not abide by it); and negotiations continued with the Egyptians towards some kind of agreement. While no one stated explicitly that a more permanent cease-fire would be linked to the release of Schalit, government sources said Olmert was under the impression that it would all happen pretty much in parallel: a cease-fire agreement would be reached, and Schalit would be released as part of a prisoner exchange. But late last week, just after the elections, Olmert changed his tune, and apparently came to the conclusion that while talks on the cease-fire were progressing, Schalit was being left behind, and that Hamas - as long as it would get the border crossings open - was in absolutely no hurry to let him go. The border crossings are key to Hamas. The organization has, as a result of the war, reportedly lost much of its public support in Gaza, with some polls showing that fewer than 30 percent of Gazans want to see Hamas continue to rule. To rebuild itself, it needs to rebuild Gaza, and to rebuild Gaza, it needs the crossings open, so that basic building materials can get in. Once the crossings were open, Hamas would be in no great rush to release Schalit. There was also something else gnawing at Olmert: All Hamas's talks of setting conditions for a cease-fire - a year-long truce, placing men at the Rafah border - created the mistaken impression that it was still the party calling the shots, despite the heavy blow it suffered during the war. Olmert, for whom the successful operation of the war has gone a long way toward erasing the less-than-successful memories of the poorly executed Second Lebanon War, could be excused for suddenly fearing that all the achievements of the operation were about to go down the drain. There is no quiet in the South, as rockets intermittently continue to fall; there are reports of a renewal of arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip; all the talk of an international mechanism along the Egyptian-Gaza border to combat arms smuggling has led to nothing substantial; and Schalit is still in captivity. In short, the achievements of the war are being eroded. Another funny thing also happened to Olmert on the way to his change of mind. Barak - one of the three legs upon which Operation Cast Lead had rested - was badly weakened by the elections. Barak, the main advocate for a formal cease-fire through Egypt, no longer yields the same clout as he did two weeks ago, simply because he did so poorly at the polls. And thus was the country's policy on the cease-fire reversed. As to the fallout, Egypt - which invested a lot of time and prestige in mediating between Israel and Hamas, and was reportedly furious at this Israeli U-Turn - is obviously unhappy its work has been for naught. But in the end, one senior diplomatic source speculated, this episode won't incontrovertibly impair Cairo-Jerusalem ties, because strong ties between the two countries are not only in Israel's interest, but also in Egypt's.