What does the Gilad Shalit deal really mean?

The Gilad Shalit exchange means a great deal for the released prisoners and their families. But in the larger picture, it won't bring much change.

By , Staff writer

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    Gilad Shalit walks with his father Noam (r.), Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (l.) at Tel Nof air base in central Israel on Tuesday.
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The release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners is a breakthrough for the detainees and their families.

The return home of a frail-seeming Mr. Shalit, an Israeli everyman, has transfixed the nation. In the West Bank and in Gaza, returning prisoners have set off emotional celebrations of their own. The homecomings have been played to the hilt by Hamas, Fatah, and the Netanyahu administration for whatever domestic political gain can be wrung from them.

But pay no heed to editorials or news articles that hint this prisoner swap is going to reframe peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, dramatically improve the faltering position of Hamas, or lead to a thawing in chilly relations between Israel and Egypt, which helped facilitate the ongoing prisoner exchange.

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Yes, Israel negotiated with Hamas, a group they and the US consider to be terrorists. But pragmatically dealing with opponents is nothing new for Israel, particularly when it comes to returning Israeli soldiers.

In 1985, Israeli negotiated the release of three of its soldiers held in Lebanon by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, which it also deemed a terrorist group, in return for more than 1,100 Palestinian prisoners. After two Mossad agents were caught in Jordan after trying to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in 1997, Israel released Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin (later assassinated himself by Israel in Gaza) in exchange for their safe return.

And in 2004, Israel negotiated with Hezbollah the release of Elhannan Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who had been kidnapped while traveling abroad seeking to conduct a drug deal with the group. Israel released 400 Palestinian prisoners and the bodies of about 60 Hezbollah fighters in exchange for Tannenbaum and the remains of three Israeli soldiers.

There was something for everyone in the deal. But that's of little relevance to the principal issue of the Palestinian conflict – land for peace. While the Israeli public seems, by and large, willing to swallow releasing over 1,000 people, many convicted of murder and other violent crimes, in exchange for a soldier, that doesn't say much about a political willingness to compromise on settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Could Hamas, whose popularity has faded in Gaza since it swept elections in 2005, dramatically improve its position thanks to the deal? It's hard to see a huge change in its political position. For years, the group had insisted that a number of prominent Palestinian prisoners would have to be included in any deal for Shalit, most importantly Marwan Barghouti. Mr. Barghouti is probably the Fatah official with the most credibility on the street in the West Bank, and his release would have certainly shaken up Palestinian politics. But he remains in Israeli prison, serving a life sentence on a murder charge.

In 2008, Israel and Hamas neared a day on Shalit's release, then as now with the involvement of Cairo. But the proposed deal fell apart over Barghouti. Why Hamas was more willing to compromise on that issue now is unclear. But Barghouti would have been the big prize, not least because a major Fatah leader would have been indebted to the group, raising the prospects of meaningful reconciliation.

Now, while there will certainly be some good will for Hamas generated by the release, the structural problem for the organization in Gaza remains. Once seen as a clean-handed alternative to the Fatah kleptocrats they replaced, Hamas itself has grown increasingly thuggish and alienated many Gazans. Emblematic was their attempt to ban celebrations of the popular call by Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas for Palestinian statehood at the UN, with Palestinian flags taken from crowds in Gaza, demonstrators roughed up, and some supporters of the bid arrested.

Hamas has also banned Gaza students from traveling to the US to study, and has engaged in the same sorts of patronage that turned so many Gazans against Fatah when they were running the strip. In a June poll, the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that just 29 percent of Palestinians would vote for Hamas if new elections were held, with 45 percent throwing their support behind Fatah. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, Hamas crushed Fatah – taking 76 seats in the 132 member legislature against 43 for Fatah.

Further afield, Hamas' reliance on support from Syria, with much of its leadership living in Damascus, has hurt the group's image. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's bloody anti-democracy crackdown has left Hamas dependent on a patron that most Arabs abhor and whose position is certain to be weakened, whatever the outcome of the struggle for democracy in Syria.

And what of Egypt's relationship with Israel? Yes, Egypt played an important role in this deal – which has led some to see the prospects of an improving Egyptian-Israeli relationship after a rocky year in which former President Hosni Mubarak fell, Egyptian troops were shot by Israeli ones along the border, and the Israeli embassy in Cairo shut after it was breached by an angry group of protesters. But public anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt is going to continue to be expressed. While a permanent rupture doesn't seem likely soon, neither does a return to the cozy security cooperation of the Mubarak years.

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