Why was Gilad Shalit Released Now?

The curious might speculate about why
Gilad Shalit was released now. He was captured by Hamas in 2006 and has been
held for 5 years in Gaza. The prisoner exchange – one Israeli soldier for more
than 1000 Palestinian prisoners – has been a point of discussion for a long
time. Yes, there were disagreements about who should be released and what
should happen to them after release. Hamas wanted Marwan Barghouti (a brutal
terrorist) released but Israel refused. Other released prisoners were required
to leave the area and settle somewhere other than the West Bank or Gaza. Still,
why now?

The exchange is actually quite
significant and expected to reshape various relationships in the area not to
mention the image of Benjamin Netanyahu. Gilad Shalit had become quite a cause
célèbre in Israel. His parents and tens of thousands of Israeli citizens
petitioned the government to do something about his imprisonment and organized
a large and successful social movement around gaining the release of Gilad. I
can remember once being stuck in a particularly nasty traffic jam on the road
to Jerusalem because of a protest march designed to draw attention to the
plight of Shalit. But as the intensity of the support for Shalit increased, so
did his value to Hamas. The more Israel wanted him returned, the more it was
going to cost them. I suspect that Hamas bided its time until Gilad reached
maximum value. Perhaps the rising tide of support for Shalit’s release ended up
extending his stay in the Hamas jail – although it probably saved his life.

Netanyahu was under considerable pressure
to do something about Shalit. His parents requested audiences with Netanyahu
and poured their hearts out in the media. Netanyahu commands respect amongst
Israelis, and his morally unambiguous and fluent English serves him well in the
United States. But Netanyahu is also seen as harsh and conservative by many and
one who does not care sufficiently about the failure of government to help
people: to improve housing and job opportunities. Gaining Shalit’s release on
his watch gave Netanyahu a serious boost. I suspect that Netanyahu figured it
was time to accept as many Hamas demands as he could stomach. It is also true
that the continual protests demanding Shalit’s release were gnawing at Netanyahu
and diminishing the image and effectiveness of this government.

The “Arab Spring” and the
turmoil in the region also play a hand in this game. Turkey who helped broker
the deal is apparently closer to Hamas then we thought. Although Turkey has
been clearly distancing itself from Israel, its connection to Hamas is
surprising. However, Hamas’s political base in Syria is tenuous given the
protests and perhaps Hamas is looking to Turkey for future relations. The
future of the relationship between Egypt and Israel is cloudy. If the Muslim
brotherhood increases its power Egypt will certainly be less congenial. Perhaps
Netanyahu and his conservative government figured it had something to gain by
acting now.

Finally, Hamas gets to look like it
cares about all Palestinians. The tense relationship between Hamas and the
Palestinian Authority is real. Hamas flatly rejects the existence of Israel and
the Palestinian Authority tries to negotiate with Israel; Hamas disagreed with
the United Nations declaration of statehood move by the Palestinian Authority;
yet, the Palestinian Authority gained the admiration of many Palestinians by
standing up to the Security Council and rejecting the American request to
withdraw the application.

It turns out that this particular moment
in time, this particular confluence of events, created a perfect storm of
issues such that both sides thought it was in their best interest to negotiate.
And that is just what conflict management is all about.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on October 18, 2011, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Israel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why was Gilad Shalit Released Now?.

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