Critical Currents: A swap to restore faith

The release of Gilad Schalit and Marwan Barghouti could revive hope on both sides.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
US President George W. Bush's current visit highlights the most glaring characteristic of the post-Annapolis period: the growing gap between the promise of a negotiated resolution of the conflict and the reality of rapid deterioration on the ground. The prevailing crisis of faith that permeates broad segments of Palestinian and Israeli society has become an immediate, and seemingly impermeable, barrier to any real progress. For the good intentions of the revived diplomatic process to begin to yield results, it is essential to restore a modicum of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. Ostensibly, the Annapolis dynamic was designed with just such a tangible bridging mechanism in mind. The decision to pursue the implementation of the first phase of the Road Map on a continuous basis under US supervision was meant to ensure visible, ongoing improvements in the quality of daily life of Palestinians and Israelis, while fostering that atmosphere of goodwill on both sides so necessary for propelling constructive negotiations. In fact, the precise opposite has occurred. While the parties bicker over the terms and timetable for the fulfillment of their respective obligations, settlement expansion and violence have continued unabated. Even if a complete construction freeze is achieved beyond the Green Line, along with a veritable cease-fire, full compliance with the provisions of the Road Map will probably take quite some time. IN THE interim, the damage of the widening breach between the despondency of the present and the hope of a peaceful future is likely to grow unless some mutual confidence is regained. No single move can contribute more to this objective than a prisoner exchange spearheaded by the simultaneous release of Gilad Schalit and Marwan Barghouti. The fate of its kidnapped soldiers (Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Schalit) has justifiably galvanized the emotions of the Israeli public more than any other issue in the recent past. Schalit's prolonged incarceration in Gaza has come to represent the depravity of Palestinian Islamic extremism, thus not only sustaining but actually compounding the widespread Israeli suspicion and distrust of its immediate neighbors. For many Palestinians, Barghouti, in turn, has become the human symbol of the struggle to end the Israeli occupation. Along with the thousands arrested during the second intifada (including the bulk of the elected Hamas leadership), his imprisonment mirrors the widespread despair of Palestinians with their failure to rid themselves of Israeli overrule. Symbolically, then, the immediate release of Schalit and Barghouti may be viewed as a demonstrable act of good faith that would be welcomed by solid majorities in the two communities. On the Israeli side, the latest Peace Index published by Tel Aviv University's Steinmetz Center indicates that 51 percent are willing to revise the criteria for the release of prisoners in exchange for Schalit (36% are unwilling to do so). Palestinian polls consistently rate the freeing of prisoners as a top priority. The positive effects of such a move on the collective psyche in Palestine and Israel cannot be underestimated. The political implications of this type of gesture are also significant. Barghouti is emblematic of the new generation of Fatah leaders. He constitutes - even in jail - an important bridge between the party old guard represented by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the new generation of local grassroots activists. The release of key leaders in other conflict areas (most notably Nelson Mandela in South Africa) proved to be the precursor to a political settlement. Here, too, this step can give a critical boost to negotiations. Schalit's return is a political imperative for Israeli leaders as well. It proves that the state is willing to go the extra mile to bring home its captured soldiers, thus renewing flailing confidence not only in the government, but more importantly in the system as a whole. And, in both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, a prisoner exchange will be greeted as a sign of political will - a tangible commitment to a vision of mutual accommodation. There are practical reasons for such a measure as well. In many respects it serves as a historical corrective. Barghouti's arrest and trial unleashed a particularly violent outburst and created a leadership vacuum which indirectly contributed to the rise of the Hamas. His release, belatedly, may begin to redress this dynamic. THE KIDNAPPING of Gilad Schalit caused the escalation of Israeli attacks on Gaza on the eve of the Second Lebanon War, and has served as the rationale for their continuation since. His return might perhaps mitigate the retrogressive effects of these incursions in the months ahead. Indeed, a prisoner exchange at this juncture may supply a vital (although hardly sufficient) tool for stabilization. The possible benefits accruing from the release of Schalit and Barghouti are enhanced by the fact that - unlike other contemplated confidence-building measures - such a move is doable. Similar exchanges have taken place in the past and their costs are well known. The potential backlash is, at best, contained and ephemeral. The present Israeli and Palestinian leaders can carry out this move on their own. Put together - the feasibility of a prisoner exchange is a real incentive to its realization. Israelis and Palestinians sorely seek something to restore their hope in political accommodation, and in the prospect for the peaceful resolution of the conflict. This must be done now, before the sense of helplessness becomes so overwhelming that it cannot be reversed. The release of Gilad Schalit and Marwan Barghouti is precisely what is needed to press home the linkage between the diplomatic process and better conditions today.