Last weekend’s violent deal between Israel and Islamic Jihad In Gaza was interpreted by some as proof that the Gilead Shalit prisoner exchange compromised Israeli security. Beyond these recent events it is indeed clear, as Professor Robert H. Mnookin and others warned, that the Shalit deal generated numerous risks for Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and indeed to the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, the exchange also offers opportunities for a more stable Israeli-Hamas interaction.
First, the deal created a level of trust between two parties that abhor each other ideologically, interact mostly through violet means, and display deep mutual distrust. Yet the pragmatism of the parties in the last phases of the negotiation, their ability to conclude a transaction, and the smooth execution of its first (and most significant) phase, signaled that they “can do business together”.
The large number of issues that bind Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas government – a long border, a Palestinian economy that is dependent on Israel, and even their on-going armed exchanges – means that there is a large pool of possible deals if indeed the trust can be extended beyond this specific transaction.
Second, the exchange is a reminder to Israel that it cannot regulate the conflict with the Palestinians simply by force; the militarily and politically weak Hamas was able to coerce Israel, a regional superpower. This realization creates an incentive for Israel to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. Past breakthroughs between Israelis and Arabs were all preceded by a similar Israeli awareness of the limits of power: The 1979 peace agreement with Egypt was preceded by the heavy Israeli losses in the 1973 war. Similarly, the 1993 Israel and PLO agreement was preceded by Israel’s difficulty to end the Palestinian popular up-rising (Intifada) in the West Bank and Gaza.
Third, the security challenge for Israel stemming from the release of hundreds of Palestinian operatives could be mitigated, at least in part, by avoiding another round of conflict. Although much of the discussion in Israel regarding the threat posed by these operatives draws on a criminology-like “recidivism” of terrorists, it is inter-communal violence that creates the space for these operatives to use violence.
Finally, the deal buttressed an effective third party, the Egyptians. It also proved the significance of other indirect channels of communications, such as the one established by Israeli activist Gershon Baskin. Bordering both Israel and Gaza, Egypt has a strong motive to continue its constructive role.
Two caveats to this somewhat optimistic post: First, my argument assumes that negotiations are a superior route to force in regulating the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Though some mainstream Israelis, like former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevi, advocate for this approach, others suggest that Hamas’ “devilish” ideological commitments and its rivalry with the moderate Fatah should lead Israel to use only force against it. Second, as Professor Gabriella Blum warned us in her work, the parties’ ability to resolve some immediate problems allows them also to avoid resolving the underlining conflicts.
The Shalit prisoner exchange was painful for Israel and carries risks not only to the Jewish state but also to the moderate Palestinian Fatah movement. These risks are further exacerbated by the highly uncertain regional environment. However, behind the clouds there may be a ray of sun, and it is up to us, as negotiation scholars, to try and point to it.
Dr. Ehud Eiran is a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of International Relations at Haifa University, Israel, and an affiliate of PON’s Middle East Negotiation Initiative. He was a senior visiting fellow at PON 2003-2006.