Analysis: Getting the interests straight

Analysis Getting the in

In October, when Israel released 20 female prisoners in exchange for a video of Gilad Schalit, defense officials at the time said that Hamas was not interested in an immediate deal and preferred to wait for a date closer to elections in the Palestinian Authority to boost its popularity. Israel's interest has always been the opposite: To release Schalit far away enough from the elections - which have since been postponed to an unknown date - to prevent the mass release of prisoners, which will naturally be credited to Hamas, from significantly undermining PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is the leader Israel has tried to bolster in recent years and with whom Israel ultimately hopes to make peace. The release of Schalit, commonly looked at only with regard to the heavy price Israel will pay, entails a multitude of interests by many different players including Israel, Hamas, Fatah and the United States. Quite the burden for one soldier who has been in Hamas captivity for almost three-and-a-half years. The Israeli interest is twofold and also seemingly contradictory. On the one hand, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, like Ehud Olmert before him, wants to retrieve Schalit, but at the same time avoid strengthening Hamas. While Hamas will be boosted in the immediate future by the release of over 1,000 prisoners, the delay in Palestinian elections - the election commission will meet in December to set a new date - may diminish the effect. In addition, if reports are true that Hamas prisoner and Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti will be released in the swap, he is believed to have the public support needed to bolster Abbas and counter Hamas's strengthening as well. For Abbas, Barghouti could be the ace up his sleeve. So far, he has remained silent on the impending deal and is traveling through South America. He spoke in Argentina on Monday of the need for renewed negotiations and an Israeli freeze on settlement construction, but made no mention of Schalit. For Netanyahu, the swap could mean one of two things. On the one hand, he will be recognized by most Israelis (the ones who support the deal) as taking a brave step and succeeding where others failed before him, after less than a year in office. On the other hand, Netanyahu holds himself to be a hardliner who has preached against surrendering to terrorism. Caving in to Hamas's demands will be perceived as doing just that. Together with his PR team, he will try to spin the story differently, mainly by saying that Olmert set the standard with the negotiations he held and therefore he, Netanyahu, had no choice but to accept the format. From Schalit forward, though, Netanyahu will likely claim Israel will no longer pay such prices. This, of course, remains to be seen. The main battle though will begin the moment the prisoners are released by Israel and it will be between Hamas and Fatah over the Palestinian public opinion. Like in previous prisoner swaps, those released to the West Bank will likely first stop at the Mukata in Ramallah for an embrace and picture with Abbas, even if he cannot be directly credited with their release. Hamas officials will likely argue that they are the real leaders of the Palestinian people and that only they can secure the release of prisoners. Israelis will have a lot to ponder regarding the release of some of the hardcore prisoners on Hamas's list as published in Arab newspapers. Barghouti, for example, is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison. Ahmad Sa'adat, the PFLP leader whom Israel captured in a daring raid in Jericho several years ago and who was behind the assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, is also rumored to be on the list, as published in Arab newspapers. But there are other names with which the public is less familiar who are reported by Arab newspapers to be on the list, such as Ibrahim Hamed, the former head of the Hamas military wing and responsible for dozens of Israeli deaths, as well as Abed Said, who dispatched the suicide bomber to the Park Hotel on Seder night seven years ago. There is also the issue of the release of east Jerusalem Arabs, who also appear to be on Hamas's list as published in Arab newspapers. Their release would be something of a precedent for Israel, by linking the release of its own citizens, even if they are terrorists, with a deal it is carrying out with a Palestinian terror group. What would happen to these Israeli Arabs? Would they go back to their homes in Israel, continue to receive National Insurance benefits and vote in elections after their release?