The US should act on the offensive regarding prisoner swaps

Obama may have good intentions for America’s role in the Middle East, but his actions—and non-actions—in the Schalit and Grapel affairs have only played against those intentions.

US President Obama with PA President Abbas 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
US President Obama with PA President Abbas 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
When President Barack Obama was running for the presidency in 2008, one of his key goals was a renewed plan for America’s role in the Middle East. Throughout his campaign, messages of an outstretched hand towards peace in the region were a staple of his foreign policy. A smarter and more informed America was what he promised, but his actions in the Schalit and Grapel affairs suggest a government no more adept than the previous administration when it comes to this region of the world.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made the decision that he would combat the PR victory of Hamas by rewarding the freed prisoners, including the ones deported outside of the West Bank and Gaza, with financial assistance. It hasn’t yet been announced how large the financial grants will be, but one has to imagine that Abbas will aim to one-up Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s grant offer of $2,000 each.
Who knows where the money will come from for these grants, but, if I were Obama, I would be at least slightly concerned that a portion of the $470 million the United States gave to the PA just last year could end up in the hands of terrorists, many of whom were given multiple life sentences for the atrocities they committed.
The US has threatened to cut financial aid to the PA if their United Nations statehood bid goes through, but they haven’t shown any concern regarding the use of funds already given to the PA.
The United States’ actions have been even more egregious in the Ilan Grapel exchange. Grapel, a dual US-Israeli citizen, has been held in Egypt since June under the claims that he was an Israeli spy and that he had been inciting violence. In exchange for Grapel’s release, Israel decided to make yet another prisoner swap, this time for 25 Egyptian prisoners. Egyptian General Sameh Sayf al-Yazal was quoted by the Palestinian news agency Ma’an as saying that, in order to get the best deal possible, the Egyptians called on the US to also give something up for Grapel, who was born in New York City and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.  And just what was the United States’ willing to sacrifice for the release of its citizen? Something that every Arab Spring nation needs for its mantelpiece - an F-16 fighter jet.
Regardless of the fact that a fighter jet doesn’t equal 25 prisoners, and that the last thing that Egypt needs right now is more military equipment, the US should have thought twice before blindly giving in to Egypt’s demands.
The Egyptians would have taken the 25 prisoners in exchange for Grapel. Even the Egyptian people knew that it was a bogus charge to keep Grapel in prison, but they still managed to extract a deal. The Egyptian negotiators wanted all 81 Egyptian prisoners released, but Israel wouldn’t bite. Instead, the US gives Egypt weaponry to make up for the 56 prisoners the Egyptians couldn’t get. How does that make sense?
It was good for Obama to support democracy and liberty in Egypt and the other nations of the Arab Spring, but what has the Egyptian military done to deserve compensation? The Egyptian political system is a black hole, held together by its military. If Obama truly wants to help Egypt transition into a democracy and partner for peace, the US should be trying to help the moderate factions in Egypt gain footing, not empowering its military and its radical factions.
The same goes for US support of the Palestinians. At is stands right now, schizophrenic US policy towards the PA is either one of blind support or misguided opposition. In either case, its policy is counterproductive to Obama’s vision for Middle East peace and his country’s role in its pursuit.
Until President Obama can clearly define the role of the United States in the Middle East and how he will go about negotiating with the parties involved, Israel will be forced to make lopsided deals and the Palestinians will have no accountability.