Now that there’s a truce, what about Gilad Shalit?


JERUSALEM (JTA) – The Hamas-Israel cease-fire’s fiercest critics are those some expected to be its greatest beneficiaries: the parents of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Having pursued a largely low-key campaign for the liberation of their son since he was abducted by Hamas-led gunmen two years ago, Noam and Aviva Shalit have reacted furiously to the exclusion of their son from the Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce.

On Sunday, the Shalits filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding that one of the key components of the cease-fire—the easing of Palestinian movement across the Gaza border—be blocked until Israel commit to retrieving their son.

And in a slew of media interviews, the couple accused Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of potentially having destroyed any chance of getting the 21-year-old hostage back soon—or even ever. Enlisting Gilad in absentia, they published a recent handwritten letter in which he wrenchingly begs to be freed.

Their criticism has roiled the Israeli public and fueled public debate about the efficacy of Israel’s cease-fire with Hamas.

A poll in last Friday’s Yediot Acharonot found that 78 percent of Israelis think the Gaza truce should have been conditioned on Shalit going free, while only 15 percent disagreed. Asked if they agreed with Noam Shalit’s assertions that his son had been “forsaken” by the state, 68 percent of respondents said yes and 24 percent said no.

The public’s outrage may seem surprising given the Olmert government’s repeated assurances that Shalit is integral to the truce, which began June 20. Olmert is to fly to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt this week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on speeding Shalit’s release.

“The ‘calming agreement’ is, for the time being, the best means of creating a framework and an umbrella to propel forward a process of discussion, under the auspices of Egypt, which we hope will culminate with the return of Gilad Shalit,” Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry negotiator representing the state at the High Court, told Israel Radio.

Yet Hamas has said otherwise, denying any direct linkage between the suspension of hostilities and Shalit.

“We separated Shalit and the truce,” said Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza and deposed Palestinian prime minister. “The Israelis and their leaders have so far undermined reaching a prisoner exchange because they are not accommodating the Palestinian demands.”

Hamas wants Israel to free hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists in exchange for Shalit. Israel has balked at some of the names on Hamas’ list, arguing that returning mass murderers to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip would be disastrous for the embattled, relatively moderate Palestinian Authority.

But in recent days Israeli officials have hinted that they could relax their criteria. Israel hopes for similar flexibility from Hamas, though it has shown no signs of that.

The ace up Israel’s sleeve is Rafah, the main terminal on the Gaza-Egypt border, which was shut by Cairo after Hamas seized control of Gaza a year ago. Israeli officials say Rafah will not reopen unless there is “significant progress” in efforts to free Shalit, though what this would constitute remains unclear.

Noam Shalit has argued that Rafah could provide a conduit for Hamas to spirit out his son to a location where he will never be found.

“We all remember what happened with Ron Arad, how he was handed from one group to another and eventually disappeared,” Noam Shalit said in one interview, referring to the Israeli airman who bailed out of a plane over Lebanon in 1986, was captured and then disappeared. Israeli intelligence believes Arad was captured by Lebanese Shiite militiamen and later transferred to Iran, where many suspect he was killed.

When they announced they were filing their court petition, the Shalits found surprise support from Tammy Arad, the normally reclusive wife of the missing Israeli air force navigator.

“Captivity is a terminal disease. The chances of retrieval are in your hands,” Tammy Arad wrote in an open letter to the court. “Do not take away Gilad’s hopes of returning to his family. Do not take away Aviva’s and Noam’s hopes of reuniting with Gilad, of holding him in their arms again.”

On Monday, Israel’s high court denied the Shalits’ petition.

Israeli defense officials are doubtful about whether Hamas would want Gilad Shalit to be anywhere other than Gaza. Taking him out through the Egyptian Sinai would risk a clash between the Palestinians and Cairo.

Dov Weisglass, an adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who is now helping the Shalits, said another concern is that, with Israel’s military and economic pressure on Gaza eased, Hamas will have less of an incentive to make a prisoner swap.

“Due to the siege and the closure, Hamas sought Egypt’s help in achieving a ‘calm,’ and its leaders undoubtedly understood that in exchange for the ‘calm,’ they would have to soften their demands for prisoners,” Weisglass wrote in Yediot Acharonot. “But no. Israel did not demand this. Israel, for some reason, consented for the matter of the kidnapped soldier to be discussed after the removal of the siege and closure.”

“Now, when the Gazans can breathe easy, Hamas will no longer have a reason to hurry and renew the negotiations, and certainly no reason to end it with any concession on their part,” Weisglass continued. “An Israeli hostage is not a bad thing: He is a pretext for a great many interviews, talks, trips around the world. In the end, Israel will also pay dearly for him. What could be bad about this? Why rush?”

Jerusalem officialdom also sees the strategy of keeping Shalit in captivity as a Hamas bid to safeguard its leaders against Israeli assassination attempts. In the past, Hamas has hinted it would execute Shalit in retaliation for a major Israeli strike.

Israeli officials insist that pursuing Shalit’s release in the atmosphere of a Gaza truce is the best option, given the dearth of alternatives.

A rescue raid is unlikely to succeed, given past experience with other captive soldiers and Israeli intelligence assessments that Shalit is being held in a booby-trapped underground bunker and watched by an elite team of Hamas gunmen ready to kill him and themselves. Wider Israeli military strikes in Gaza so far have proven fruitless in retrieving the soldier.

Gilad, the Defense Ministry official, said the best chance lies with Egyptian mediation.

“The Egyptians promised to muster all their resources to open contacts” on Shalit’s return, Gilad said. “Compared to other options, this is the best one at the moment. Actually, it’s the only one that exists. There are those criticizing harshly, and though the strength of the words may be impressive, no one is offering a better alternative.”

Viewing the truce from many sides


JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli strategic thinkers are deeply divided over the implications of the truce between Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas fundamentalists. But whatever their perspective, most agree that it could have a profound impact on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

There are several schools of thought:

* Dovish optimists hope the truce, or “tahadiyeh,” will create a new atmosphere in which genuine peacemaking with all Palestinian factions—moderates and fundamentalists alike—is possible.

* Pessimistic doves and most hawks are critical of what they see as a strengthening of the Palestinian radicals at the expense of the moderates. They fear this could make a future peace deal much more difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

* Centrists argue that because the conflict cannot be resolved, contained, long-term cease-fires with Hamas are far more realistic than pipedreams of peace with the moderates.

The differences stem largely from the way the different schools see Hamas.

Some see the organization as unshakeably wedded to the radical cause led by Iran. Others believe it can be co-opted onto the side of the regional moderates against Iran. And others hold that even if it cannot be won over, it is a more authentic representative of the Palestinians than the more moderate Fatah and therefore must be part of any viable negotiating process.

The optimists maintain that once goods start flowing freely into Gaza and the economy picks up, the Palestinian-Israel equation will change dramatically. The thinking is that when Palestinians in Gaza see that life can be very different, they won’t want to go back to struggle and hardship, and will press Hamas to extend the tahadiyeh indefinitely. In this scenario, Israel could be the beneficiary of a relatively long truce.

As for Hamas, if it stops attacking Israel, it could gain international recognition and finally have something to lose. The combination of popular pressure and Hamas’ growing role on the international stage could lead the organization to inch its way toward a long-term accommodation with Israel.

Moreover, some of the optimists see in Hamas’ acceptance of a truce with Israel an attempt by the radical organization to subtly distance itself from Iran.

Ran Edelist, a dovish commentator on strategic affairs, sees the six-month truce that went into effect June 20 as part of a wider move by Israel to remove Hamas, Syria and Lebanon from the Iranian orbit. This, rather than any hypothetical Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear installations, “is the big and genuine move against the Iranian threat,” he says.

But others on the left—the pessimists—see serious dangers in the truce itself.

Matti Steinberg, a Hebrew University expert on Palestinian affairs, says that unless Israel neutralizes the deleterious effects of the truce, it will lead to the collapse of the moderate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank within six months.

Steinberg, a former top adviser to the Shin Bet security service, argues that the truce strengthens the radicals and weakens the moderates because it suggests to Palestinians that the Gaza model of rocketing Israeli civilians is viable, whereas the West Bank model of negotiations with Israel is going nowhere.

This, he says, will soon be accentuated by the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, presumably in exchange for the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, for which Hamas will claim credit.

Hamas, he says, “will use the truce to strengthen its political position on the West Bank, to renew negotiations with Fatah on its terms and to infiltrate the PLO where it will set a new ideological tone. In short, it will hijack the Palestinian movement and drag Israel into a terrible one-state reality.”

In other words, unless Israel takes steps to reverse the process, Hamas will use the truce to seize control of the Palestinian movement, peace between Israel and the Palestinians will become impossible, and Israel will find itself losing international legitimacy as it rules over an increasingly turbulent Palestinian population demanding equal rights in a single state comprised of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, in which it will soon become the majority.

Nevertheless, Steinberg is in favor of the truce, partly because rejecting it would have led to tension with Egypt, which brokered the deal and wants quiet in Gaza to prevent unrest spreading among its own radicals. But more important, he says, Israel could turn the truce to its advantage, neutralizing Hamas gains by accelerating genuine peacemaking with the moderates and enabling them to deliver statehood.

Steinberg believes this can be accomplished, beyond what has been possible with Mahmoud Abbas, with a major Israeli initiative. It would involve concessions on land and Jerusalem in return for Palestinian concessions on refugees and reviving the 2002 Arab peace plan, which talks of normalization of Israel’s ties with all the Arab states after it returns to its pre-1967 Six-Day War borders.

The critique of the truce from the right is less nuanced. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu sees it as a major strategic blunder: It shows that terror pays, weakens Israeli deterrence and gives Hamas the time it needs to build up its military power for the next round.

“Israel,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio, “got absolutely nothing in return, not even Gilad Shalit.”

The fourth school, the so-called centrists, takes a totally different tack.

Its members – including former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy, Tel Aviv University’s Shaul Mishal and former Southern Command chief Doron Almog—argue that Israel should forget about trying to isolate Hamas and try to turn the truce into a long-term cease-fire. The thinking is that Fatah is a declining force without the power to stand behind any agreements it might reach, whereas Hamas does.

Moreover, every time Israel has attempted to “engineer Palestinian society”—that is, create or strengthen forces more amenable to it—it has failed. This school argues that a cease-fire with Hamas is far more realistic than a full-fledged peace deal with Fatah precisely because it does not require making huge “end-of-conflict” concessions on both sides.

Most Hamas spokesmen reject the idea of accommodation with Israel and openly describe the tahadiyeh as a tactical move to gain time to prepare for an inevitable future showdown. But there are some different voices.

“Everyone on your side is saying that the truce is an opportunity for Hamas to narrow the military gap, but it’s actually an historic opportunity for Israel and for all the sides involved to live in peace and build a future for the coming generations,” Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil told Ha’aretz recently.

Anyway you cut it, the truce, if it holds, seems much more than a tactical respite. Still, it remains to be seen whether it will lead to a radicalization of Palestinian life that makes peace impossible, or to a new pragmatism that makes for peace or long-term accommodation.