Beyond Winners and Losers

Prisoner deal with Hamas is critical blow to Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, in particular.

Rally in Ramallah before prisoner release 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Rally in Ramallah before prisoner release 521
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
From a political point of view, Hamas is the only winner in the deal for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. But the political is not the only point of view.
The deal represents Hamas’s greatest success so far, with 1,027 Palestinian prisoners exchanged for one Israeli captive (the Palestinians refer to their prisoners as captives). Hamas leaders seem to have proven to everyone, and especially to their own people, that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the PLO’s diplomatic process, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, aren’t worth very much.
According the Hamas narrative, over the past 20 years, there have been countless meetings and discussions with the government of Israel; the PLO agreed to recognize Israel; the Palestinian Authority agreed to forgo terror and violent resistance – and what has this achieved for the Palestinians?
Nothing. Not an extra meter of land, not even one prisoner, and no state –this is how Hamas is playing the prisoner deal to the public, and it’s a convincing argument.
How ironic – over the past few weeks, the PA in Ramallah had been organizing a media campaign for the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. There have been demonstrations and sit-down protests. Every day, the press publishes a flood of articles about the prisoners, replete with pictures of their families and stories about their medical situation, their struggle for freedom, and everything else. The prisoners had even started a hunger strike.
Clearly, Abbas was trying to demonstrate how much he cares about the prisoners. But the campaign was in vain and merely provided Hamas with an opportunity to prove to the Palestinians who really cares for them – and who is able to actually get results.
To the Palestinian people, the implications are obvious: Armed resistance is the only way to fight against Israel. In the past, peaceful negotiations have led to the release of some prisoners, but they were merely prisoners who were ill, whose sentences were nearly over, or who were petty criminals and car thieves. Abbas was never able to get even one actual terrorist released.
Hamas has adopted the slogan of the revered former Egyptian president, Gamal Nasser, who once said, “What was taken by force will be returned only by force.”
The two movements – the one, the Fatah, a nationalist, ostensibly secular movement and the other, Hamas, a religious movement, akin to the Muslim Brotherhood – compete politically and ideologically over the right to represent the Palestinian people. They cannot agree on the principle of recognition of the State of Israel. And they cannot agree on the question of the type of government that will rule the Palestinian state once it is established.
For both sides, it is a zero-sum game. Both pretend to want to reach an agreement and understanding, but for both of them that is merely a façade. They are not capable of reaching any agreement, and are unlikely to be able to cooperate in any way in the future, because the gap between them is so wide.
In other words, under the current political circumstances, any victory for Hamas is a loss for the PA in Ramallah. And any success for Abbas is a failure for Hamas and its leaders.
Hamas, of course, is always interested in scoring points against Abbas, especially since his UN ploy. Acquaintances in Gaza, with whom I regularly speak on the phone, say that lately Abbas has become quite popular in Gaza. Once he was viewed as a weak, hapless leader, “a plucked chicken” as former prime minister Ariel Sharon once referred to him, cravenly taking orders from the Americans.
But now he has become a hero. He stood up to the entire world and demanded recognition. He was not deterred by the US’s threats to cut off all aid. He did not respond to the pressure from the Arab states, who demanded that he put an end to his unilateral initiatives at the UN. He isn’t afraid of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and not of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is calling for a stop to transferring payments to the PA.
From the Palestinian point of view, this is a new Abbas: courageous, determined, initiating. And this new Abbas, with his reasonably successful and efficient government of experts, headed by Salam Fayyad, has gained some prestige.
That has not pleased Hamas. So the Islamic movement’s political chief Khaled Mashaal has been more than happy to emphasize just how great a victory the prisoner exchange is. For the first time, he says, the captive (prisoner) exchange will take place “inside Palestine.” Until now, prisoners were released in deals signed by Israel with the PLO and foreign states.
Mashaal is also proud that he was able to represent Palestinian unity, since the released prisoners include West Bankers, East Jerusalemites, Gazans, and Israeli Arabs (or “the Arabs of 1948,” as Mashaal refers to them), as well as residents of the Golan Heights and even from the Palestinian Diaspora. Mashaal did apologize that he was unable to free all of the prisoners – but then promised to continue until not only those currently in Israeli prisons are freed, but also those who will be arrested in the future. The message is clear: Hamas intends to continue the resistance, so there will be more prisoners. And it will be Mashaal who will bring about their release.
In Israel , there is con cern that the high price that it has paid for Shalit’s release will encourage further acts of terror and that the freed terrorists will return to their former violent ways. This argument is not convincing. True, the deal is a victory for Palestinian terrorism, but it is unlikely that the freed terrorists will be the ones who will pick up the arms. This should be made clear: there is no correlation between the release of prisoners and the level of terrorist attacks. The level of violence goes up or down because of many different factors, but the release of prisoners isn’t one of them.
On the other hand, we can present a long list of dozens of Palestinians who were released in previous deals and became advocates for negotiations with Israel or have even joined peace movements, such as the “Geneva Initiative.” I’ll cite just a few of the more well-known former terrorists: Jabril Rajoub, who was responsible for security in the West Bank and cooperated fully with Israel, today is a senior member of the Fatah leadership; Kadura Fares, a former Palestinian minister who signed the Geneva Accords; Sufian Abu Zaida from Gaza, who lectures widely about the options for peace. And there are many others, most of them freed in the famous 1985 Jibril deal.
Yet it cannot be denied that the Israeli government has handed Hamas an impressive victory. Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers can claim from now until forever that they were able to squeeze concessions out of Hamas; that Hamas gave up on important prisoners; that Hamas agreed that many of the prisoners will be deported to Gaza or abroad. But the truth remains: In exchange for one soldier, Israel is releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Netanyahu and his ministers know all this. They know the deal with Hamas is a critical blow to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and to Abbas in particular. So why did they agree to it? Doesn’t the Israeli government care if Abbas loses ground? Netanyahu’s decision was motivated by many different reasons. But one of them could be that Netanyahu actually does want to take a swipe at Abbas. From his point of view this is an excellent opportunity to undermine the PA in Ramallah.
Of late, the PA has been causing Netanyahu a lot of trouble. In Netanyahu’s view, Abbas has broken the rules of the game. He is not willing to engage in direct negotiations; he is demanding a freeze on settlement construction; he took his initiative to the UN and is asking for recognition within the 1967 borders. And what has angered the government is that, to a great degree, Abbas is succeeding. The entire international community is paying attention to him. Many of his positions are being accepted.
Abbas has put Netanyahu in a bind, and, in doing so, has made himself into a bitter enemy of the government. Right now, Abbas is more of an enemy than Hamas. After all, no one in the international community is demanding that Netanyahu negotiate with Hamas – but the entire world, including the Europeans and even US President Barack Obama, is demanding that Netanyahu negotiate with the PA on the basis of the 1967 borders.
And so from Israel’s point of view, maybe it’s not so bad if Abbas suffers a reverse. Let him lose some of the prestige that he has accrued over the past few months.
This political thinking may be very short-sighted and questionable. And yet it is important to point out that political wins and losses aside, Netanyahu can claim one very important achievement: he has reinvigorated Israel’s solidarity. And from a moral point of view, the importance of this achievement, as it affects Israeli society and its effect on the Palestinians, should not be underestimated.