Gilad Schalit is home. Now what?

The lack of back channels reveals that the Israeli government has no will to promote a true peace process.

Gilad Schalit escorted 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gilad Schalit escorted 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We owe the successful conclusion of the deal, in which IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, held in captivity in Gaza by Hamas for more than five years, was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, to secret negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by the Germans and the Egyptians, as well as, perhaps, others still unknown.
Public discourse in Israel has focused primarily on the humanitarian aspects of the deal and polls reveal that the public is genuinely grateful and appreciative that the prime minister has honored his commitment to redeem a prisoner and bring him back to his family.
Similarly, the Palestinians are also focusing on the humanitarian aspects of the deal – the joy of those who have been reunited with their loved ones countered by the rage of those who were not released. This has led to calls for more kidnappings, in the belief that this is the only way to bring about the release of the other prisoners.
Despite the permission given by the public to its leaders to negotiate, albeit indirectly, with Hamas, the Israeli government, in response to challenges posed by the right wing, is now attempting to balance the humanitarian dimension with the security dimension. Spokespersons are speaking in dire terms: the release of “senior” terrorists, they repeat, who have “blood on their hands” was “weighed carefully” by the heads of the security forces, and only then was the green light for the deal given, even though the release of prisoners would provide “support for Hamas.” In the future, they vowed, the government›s position on kidnappings will be “fundamentally different.” “Never again” will Israel engage in a wholesale release of terrorists. Furthermore, the security forces will retaliate harshly against any recently-released prisoner who dares return to violence against Israel.
Right-wing spokespersons are going even further, with horrific prophecies about the inevitable wave of kidnappings of soldiers and civilians that will wash over Israel in the near future, and the casualties that will result from the deal, based on “past experience.” They are also promising to promote draconian legislation, including the death penalty for “murderers like those who killed the Fogel family in Itamar.”
But the focus on the humanitarian and security dimensions ignores another, perhaps more important, dimension: the political one. The kidnapping of Gilad Schalit was aimed at forcing the government of Israel into negotiations over his release to break the political siege on Hamas, to prove to the world that Hamas is a player that Israel cannot ignore, and to show Palestinian society that release of their loved ones cannot be left for the endgame or to be used as a pawn in the play of impasse.
That is where the crucial role of covert and overt negotiations comes into play in an effort to find political solutions. Instead of the warmongering rhetoric and playing to its right-wing flank, the government should be pursuing the very same behind-the-scenes negotiations as a means to move towards a political solution and peace in the region.
Prisoner exchanges, by their very nature, are the outcome of peace agreements and signal the end of military conflict. Similarly, states usually release prisoners who had been part of the “armed resistance” only within an “end of conflict” arrangement. For example, South Africaʼs Nelson Mandela and the other leaders of the African National Congress (ANC ) were released after long periods of imprisonment only after agreements were secured by which the apartheid regime was coming to its end, in April 1994.
The Schalit deal is, therefore, unusual: It does not signal a formal change in the relationship between Israel and Hamas or even between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This anomaly was made possible only because there were other intermediaries, operating covertly, at the request of the both sides, who facilitated the deal.
In South Africa, when the secret negotiations started, the ANC was still regarded as a terrorist organization, outlawed by Pretoria. Its leaders were either in custody or in exile. President Frederik Willem de Klerk and ANC president Mandela were wise enough to appoint representatives who enjoyed their full trust to establish a set of back channels that enabled them to contend with both the political and security aspects of the apartheid conflict. The trust that developed among those representatives allowed them to create a viable space in which they were able to explore “red lines” and to think creatively out of the box.
De Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Prize, but the covert negotiations were no less important than the public ones. Back channels play a critical role in preventing peace spoilers and terrorists from destroying peace processes, especially as they come closer to fruition. In another example from South Africa: Leaders on both sides had to mobilize extensive political resources to prevent a general deterioration of the situation prior to the constitutional elections, which took place in 1994.
One year earlier, in April 1993, Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of the armed wing of the ANC, was assassinated by white mercenaries. Mandela had to muster all of his authority as the leader of the ANC , at no small political price, in order to prevent ANC armed wing detachments in the black townships from vigilante retaliation, with critical consequences for the survivability of peace. He was able to do so, even at that critical and sensitive stage, because the back channels between the two sides were trustworthy and viable.
Parallel to the South African story, back channels also played a crucial role in our region during those years. The Declaration of Principles to the Oslo Accords was signed in the White House in September 1993. The Oslo process began as a series of preliminary contacts, under the sponsorship of the Norwegian government, in which back channel negotiators were able to understand their opponent from his own point of view and then to explore and outline parameters that could lead to a breakthrough.
As in South Africa, the years leading up to the negotiations and the signing of the “interim agreements” in September 1995 were fraught with attempts to derail the process. Hamas engaged in horrific terrorist attacks against innocent Israeli civilians. The Israeli government paid a heavy political price for its determination to pursue the process “as if there were no terror” and to fight terror “as if there were no peace process.”
The Palestinian partner also took risks as it proved its determination to achieve political ends through political means and to put the armed resistance in check. In November 1995, shortly after prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, the Palestinian leadership feared a collapse of the process. Using back channels, emissaries approached the Israeli leadership on behalf of the Palestinians in order to reiterate their commitment to make unconditional efforts to ensure tight security measures against Hamas terrorists so that the peace process could remain on track.
In Israel’s case, foreign policy is conducted in an extremely charged public climate. The bolder the political initiative, the fiercer the opposition is. Obstacles are put up quickly in the public arena, and pressure to squash new ideas before they reach fruition mounts. Reaching a peace agreement often demands that politicians violate their own election promises.
For these reasons, Israeli governments since the Oslo agreements – except this current one – have maintained some sort of back channel diplomacy. These back channel discussions have been conducted by academics, former military officers, and legal experts, all of whom enjoyed the full trust of the prime ministers. Leaders have recognized that “front channels” cannot succeed unless they are supported by back channels, in which messages and ideas that ostensibly contradict the political positions maintained officially, can be presented, discussed, and explored in closed rooms. To the public, leaders present hard-line positions; in the back channels, there is more flexibility. That was the practice in the Shalit case.
But with the exception of the Schalit-prisoner deal, the current government has refused to establish any back channels with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, let alone in Gaza.
Instead, our government declares that the Palestinians must resume negotiations “without any preconditions,” while it refuses to freeze settlement construction and demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and isolate Hamas. But these demands are precisely the kind of issues that require back channels, where trusted representatives can conduct discussions free from the pressures of the media and the political opposition that the official leaders face.
The lack of back channels reveals the truth: this government has no will to promote a true peace process. The government, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is consciously and deliberately refusing to play by the rules of the “diplomatic back channels,” which is a clear indication that the government has no interest in reaching any agreement that might inevitably lead to the establishment of a Palestinian State in Judea and Samaria.
It is clear that the same goal – to not reach an agreement – was the motivation behind the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern Samaria region in 2005, even if the modus operandi was different. Perhaps, had the two sides conducted back channel negotiations, the timing of the disengagement would not have been dictated by Israel, and the Palestinians would have been able to prepare to take effective control of the Gaza Strip. Perhaps they would have been able to put in place the necessary political and security measures. And – perhaps – the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit would never have taken place.
But now that Schalit is home: What comes next?
First of all, the government of Israel should immediately commence binding negotiations for peace, based on mutual agreements with the Palestinian Authority and the US , perhaps along the lines of the Road Map and the parameters of the “land for peace” paradigm and the “two state” solution. This will provide significant reinforcement to the Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose political and diplomatic prestige has been considerably eroded by Hamas’s success in releasing Palestinian prisoners.
For its part, Hamas must now deal with a dilemma common to all national liberation movements: At what point should they give up the armed struggle and move on to the diplomatic struggle? Based on the declarations coming out of Jerusalem, Israel harbors no expectations that Hamas will change modes and therefore maintains its position that Hamas must be excluded from any and all contacts.
But other observers believe that while there may not be any ideological change in Hamas’s position, its leadership may be credibly willing to adopt some practical changes. It is clear that Hamas responds to developments in the region. It is therefore not a given that the prisoners released in the Schalit deal will return to violence and terror; it is the diplomatic stalemate that may be pushing Palestinians towards a resumption of violence in the first place.
The leadership of Hamas represents a wide spectrum of political views and the Schalit deal teaches us that it does not necessarily reject a pragmatic approach. This opens up possibilities. Even if the government does not want to open up back channels with Hamas, it is certainly possible to engage in quiet initiatives to locate Track II channels, in an effort to break down the barriers of ignorance and misconceptions on both sides.
The Schalit deal was possible thanks to the credit extended by the public to the government so that Netanyahu could find a solution to the humanitarian problem. The government should be taking advantage of that credit in order to create new, discrete, informal, channels for dialogue. The Egyptians or Turks could provide shelter for such dialogue.
Instead, the political talking points offered by government spokesmen regarding more severe, even capital, punishment and a different treatment of any future kidnappings bear no relationship to reality and will only talk us into a dead end. They are based on the assumption that reality is static. It is not. They force any future kidnapping into either the humanitarian discourse or the security one, avoiding by all means the political.
But ultimately, it won’t work. Politics will prevail.