- Benjamin Netanyahu - Gilad Shalit - Hamas - Israel
The outside pressures that helped broker Shalit's release
The "Arab Spring" and domestic difficulties for both Hamas and the Israeli government were instrumental in negotiating the release of hostage Gilad Shalit, according to one Middle East expert.
The release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in detention is likely to pay political dividends to both Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at a critical time for both sides, according to a Middle East expert contacted by FRANCE 24.
On Tuesday Israel and Hamas finally reached an agreement under which some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will be released in exchange for 25-year-old Sgt. Shalit. The deal is expected to be a relief for Netanyahu’s government, which has suffered unprecedented civil dissent in recent months over the state of the stagnating economy.
Meanwhile Hamas, which captured Shalit in 2006, has lost political ground to domestic rival Fatah, whose leader Mahmoud Abbas made headlines last month by submitting a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN.
Alain Dickhoff, a senior political researcher at Paris institute CNRS/Ceri, said the agreement had come in the nick of time for both parties. He also suggested the destabilisation of Syria and the uncertain future of post-revolution Egypt had been instrumental in bringing matters to a head.
“Israel understood that it would be difficult to get a better deal,” Dickhoff told FRANCE 24.
‘Storms of the Middle East’
Netanyahu admitted precisely that when he announced the agreement: “I believe we got the best deal that we could get, considering the storms of the Middle East. I don't know if we could have got a better deal, or a deal at all, in the future.”
The ‘storms’ of the Arab Spring have been felt strongly in Israel. Although Egypt helped broker the deal to release Shalit, the removal of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak means Israel has lost a vital mediator in its negotiations with the Palestinians.
And the Egyptian legislative elections, due on November 28, are expected to hand considerable power to the Muslim Brotherhood, a once banned group known for its hostility towards Israel.
“Israel needed to conclude this deal because there are huge uncertainties as to the role of Cairo in negotiations once these elections have taken place,” said Dickhoff. “It’s almost certain that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to do well and we don’t know if they will be as keen to continue Cairo’s role as mediator for the Israelis.”
The Arab Spring has also changed the game for Hamas, which has had to distance itself from its traditional supporter Syria in the face of the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Domestically, both Hamas and the Israeli government are beset by political difficulties that Shalit’s release may help redress.
For Hamas, the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners means it can make up for ground lost to Mahmoud Abbas, leader of rival faction Fatah, whose popularity shot up with the request to grant a Palestinian state full UN membership.
“Freeing these prisoners gives Hamas a concrete advantage,” said Dickhoff. “Even if Abbas gained some popularity with the UN gesture, he still hasn’t got any solid results from it. Hamas will use the deal as a propaganda weapon and will try to get as much political leverage from it as possible.”
In Israel, Netanyahu has faced unprecedented home-grown social unrest over price rises and falling standards of living.
According to Dickhoff, the deal could not have come at a better time for the Israeli leader.
The prisoner swap with Hamas enjoys significant public support, despite the heavy price. A poll by daily newspaper Maariv back in May showed 58% of Israelis supported the exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Sgt. Shalit.
“Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will be credited, and in the short term at least, securing Shalit’s freedom is going to pay off,” said Dickhoff.
But he warned: “Netanyahu will also have to deal with a certain amount of dissent. Not everyone in his cabinet [including firebrand Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman] believed that he got the best deal out of Hamas.”