Israel's exchanges of live prisoners and the remains of the dead with its neighbors are not nearly as easy to judge at the ethical or political level as the media and the politicians on both sides of the border would have us believe. Unlike the view expressed by many, I happen to think that last week's exchange with Hizballah was, in historic perspective, relatively "cheap" from Israel's standpoint.
Israel gave up only five live Lebanese and the remains of another 50 or so Lebanese and Palestinians in return for the remains of two IDF soldiers. The most notorious of the Lebanese, Samir Kuntar, had been in jail for some 30 years--an adequate deterrent against future Kuntars. Compared to previous deals, this one was economical. Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel deserves praise for his efforts.
Those efforts will now be directed at retrieving IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas, whose spokesmen are already citing the Hizballah deal, mysteriously, as justification for raising the price for Shalit. Yet the circumstances surrounding the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange negotiations are radically different from those that prevailed on the northern front, to the extent that few analogies can be drawn: Gaza, after all, is the scene of intermittent fighting and siege while Israel's Lebanon border is quiet; Israel's dealings with Hamas affect and are affected by its dealings with the PLO in the West Bank; and a neighboring Arab country, Egypt, is involved in all current Israel-Hamas discussions.
Israelis are understandably upset over the triumphalism with which Hizballah, and Lebanon in general, received the repatriated Lebanese and Palestinians, dead and alive. Show me who your heroes are and I'll show you who you are. Kuntar, his pathetic televised denials notwithstanding, was the teenage murderer of Israeli children. Dalal al-Maghrabi, now reburied in Lebanon as "the first woman to lead a commando operation against the occupation", was killed 30 years ago while butchering Israeli civilians in a hijacked bus on the coast road. The complicity of so many Lebanese and Palestinians in the orgy of patriotism and threats against Israel that accompanied their return is disgusting; the silence of so many other Arabs is deafening.
Contrary to Hasan Nasrallah's repeated boasts about having demonstrated Israel's weakness, most Israelis received a healthy reminder last week, as we buried our dead in quiet dignity, concerning just who our neighbors are and what we must prepare to do in order to deal with them. Nasrallah doesn't "know us" nearly as well as he thinks.
In general, Arab and Iranian portrayals of Israel's weakness because of the price it pays to retrieve its dead are bizarre. When our neighbors demonstrate that an Israeli, dead or alive, is worth dozens or hundreds or even thousands of Lebanese or Palestinians, we are weak. When a Syrian nuclear installation at Deir a-Zour is demolished in the night or an Imad Moughniyeh is assassinated in the heart of Damascus, we are presumed to be strong. Make up your minds.
Undoubtedly, the prisoner exchange issue demonstrates just how difficult it is for us to deal with the militant Islamist non-state actors on our borders, precisely because they play by different rules than sovereign state neighbors. But those Arab state neighbors find dealing with militant Islamists no less difficult. Lebanon has been reduced to a state of helplessness. Egypt has no easy solutions for Hamas on its border. In a better Middle East, hopefully some day soon, we and our state neighbors could sit down together to discuss agreed solutions.
The controversy inside Israel over the price paid for the remains of two IDF soldiers held by Hizballah has motivated Minister of Defense Ehud Barak to appoint a commission tasked with standardizing Israel's approach to prisoner exchange issues in a way that neutralizes or reduces the influence of politics and the media. But precisely because every instance is different, this will be difficult. It would be more to the point to resolve that once Gilad Shalit has returned home, whatever the price, the government of Israel will undertake to release even "blood on their hands" Palestinian prisoners not under duress, as ransom for kidnapped Israelis, but as a proactive incentive and reward for progress toward peace registered by responsible Palestinians who seek a reasonable mode of coexistence with us.
As long as we persuade our neighbors that regarding prisoners, "the Jews understand only force," abductions will take place. There is another, better way.- Published 21/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Although the recent deal between Hizballah and Israel allowed an exchange of prisoners and bodies, it's not the first of its kind. There have been similar exchanges in the past between Israel and Hizballah as well as between Israel and Palestinian political organizations. This time, however, the swap has more significant and far-reaching consequences, because it took place in a different political context.
Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular are divided over the most effective approach to deal with Israel in order to achieve the common objective of ending the occupation and other forms of Israeli aggression on Arab peoples and territories. One camp promotes the political and diplomatic approach while adopting positions and demands in line with international legality. This camp includes most Arab governments, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Palestinian Authority under Fateh in Palestine.
The other camp believes that the most effective approach is resistance and conflict in addition to adopting positions and demands that are based on the rights of the Palestinians and Arabs. That includes some Arab governments like Syria, as well as highly popular and credible non-state actors such as Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. This approach seems to enjoy more public support than the first.
The two sides have been competing to secure achievements of a kind that can convince the public of the validity of their respective approaches. In this context, the exchange deal that was reached between Hizballah and Israel and the way it was implemented represented a major coup for the second camp, the "revolutionary" side. This is especially true since Hamas, which is engaged in a similar negotiations process with Israel, will sooner or later be able to ensure the release of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners.
All this is happening in parallel with the failure of the PA, led by Fateh, and its allies among the "moderate" Arab regimes to secure any achievement in political negotiations, especially on the most sensitive and immediate issues: a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion and a release of prisoners within the context of Palestinian-Israeli relations and negotiations.
Indeed, ever since Mahmoud Abbas was elected president he has not wasted any opportunity to request Israeli goodwill gestures. Israel, in turn, has not failed to ignore them. The average person in Palestine and the Arab world will thus compare Hizballah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah's public promises to secure the release of prisoners held by Israel and those of President Abbas to do the same.
The non-moderate elements in the region have made other kinds of progress in proving the efficacy of their political positions and public stance. Israel is now enrolled in different kinds of contacts and negotiations with Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. This, at a time when the "moderate" Arab representatives have been unable to move toward an end to occupation or even to ensure a reduction in those Israeli practices that serve to consolidate the occupation.
In other words, Israel is behaving in a way that only discredits and weakens the "moderate" elements on the Palestinian side. The recent intensification of Israeli raids in Nablus, for example, went beyond "security" and involved interfering in public and private institutions. This is an embarrassment for the West Bank government.
This kind of behavior also helps explain the systematic radicalization of the Arab and Palestinian publics as well as the continuing marginalization of the "moderate" elements in favor of those that have consistently held that Israel only respects the use of force.- Published 21/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
by Eyal Megged
As of this moment, the state of affairs between us and the Arabs is discouraging from the Israeli standpoint and encouraging from the Arab point of view. Everything appears to have been reversed: if in the past Israel relied on its wiles and the Arabs fell for its ruses, now the relationship has been turned upside down, as so often happens in life.
Again and again, we encounter this reversal of roles. Once, unable to deal with the superiority of Israel's cunning, the Arabs were sustained by delusions or waited for miracles. Now the situation is topsy-turvy: the Arabs rely on cunning and the Israelis grasp at useless dreams.
If in the past Israel was reputed to be a country that would do everything to avoid abandoning its wounded or captured soldiers and the Arabs were thought of as disdaining these values, here too things have been reversed. The one who strives to bring his warriors home alive is the enemy, not Israel. We are led astray and swallow lies.
Instead of thinking of tomorrow, Israeli strategy chases after yesterday. Had we done the right thing at the right time, there would never have evolved a situation in which we embarked on a lost cause to "bring our sons home". Had we made a timely deal with a weak, confused and embattled Syrian president who was begging for rescue through international recognition--not only would the abduction have been avoided but the unnecessary and pathetic war that followed as well.
Now, not only has our societal weakness been exposed, relying on oaths and witchcraft instead of brainpower, but we are being drawn into another obvious tailspin leading to yet another war in the north, this time apparently with Syria itself. Only after the next bloodletting will we be obliged to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a far less welcome deal than what we could have gotten from a weak and needy Assad two or three years ago. Thus are the pretentious and the arrogant punished. Thus are those who rely on their American patrons instead of on themselves--those who pursue the past rather than planning the future--dealt with.
The situation is similar on the Palestinian front. Just as negotiations with Hizballah became an arena of illusions and no real deal was ever made--there was no "prisoner exchange" and our sons were never "brought home"--so there is no real deal on the Palestinian horizon, either. Everything is virtual, in keeping with the computerized internet age we live in. Realities on the ground are immaterial, greed and arrogance control consciousness and thinking is directed toward instant gratification instead of understanding where we're going.
To concentrate day after day on ransoming prisoners is to view reality through a keyhole. What the Middle East needs today--as in the past, only more so--is fresh rather than routine thinking. The morass we are sinking into is mainly in our minds. It is easier to focus on captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit--though here too we don't emerge as geniuses at negotiation--than on the future of our relationship with Hamas.
Just as the problems between us and Hizballah will be resolved by solving the equation with Syria, so we'll solve the Shalit issue only when we reach the necessary far-reaching conclusions regarding the reality we share with Hamas. But meanwhile we live in a virtual reality in which we have no problem deluding the entire world. To negotiate with someone whose company at the table you enjoy and to draft terms of a contract that will never be implemented has, by the way, always been the Jewish philosophy of survival: gaining time. It never really proved itself; it certainly doesn't when the Jews are running a sovereign state.
President Bashar Assad and PM Ismail Haniyeh are motivated by strategic thinking, and we are not. This is very troubling. We live from hand to mouth, like in the Diaspora. They have statesmen, we have lawyers. They rely on their endurance, stubbornness, toughness and patience, while we have become a superpower of wine and cheese.- Published 21/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Eyal Megged is a writer. His latest novel, A Couple, was published recently by Yediot Aharonot.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
an interview with Ghazi Hamad
bitterlemons: Will the Hizballah prisoner exchange have consequences for how Hamas deals with its own prisoner exchange with Israel?
Hamad: I think it may give people encouragement that they can achieve better progress because they see that for two bodies, Israel paid a heavy price. Now, people here think that if we stand off, stay strong and remain patient we will get more from Israel. This may be the main message of the Hizballah-Israel prisoner exchange.
On the other hand, Hizballah succeeded in keeping every detail secret and involved a mediator that was active daily on all fronts. I think Hamas needs to find a new mechanism to ensure there is a good exchange.
bitterlemons: There has been some talk that Hamas is not very happy with Egypt's mediation on this issue...
Hamad: Hamas wants Egypt to be more active and to find a new mechanism in order to accelerate progress on a swap. Some people say Egypt should not simply take messages from one side to the other, but should generate its own ideas.
bitterlemons: Has the Hizballah exchange already had an effect? Not long after, Hamas announced that talks on a prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit had been suspended.
Hamad: This has more to do with the lack of benefits Gazans have felt from the ceasefire. People are disappointed with the outcome of the truce. Israel is committed to opening the crossings and yet nothing has changed on the ground in terms of the kinds of goods coming into Gaza. So people are saying Israel can't expect negotiations over Shalit while people are still suffering from the embargo and there continues to be a lack of everything. People want to see proof that Israel is committed to the ceasefire agreement before they will talk about Shalit.
bitterlemons: Will the prisoner exchange raise Hamas' demands for Gilad Shalit?
Hamad: Until now there is no change in position with regards to the numbers or the sort of prisoners Hamas wants released. Maybe after what is seen as the victory of Hizballah this will simply strengthen Hamas' resolve not to change that position.
But, in a way, the Hizballah exchange has made the situation with Shalit more complicated. This is partly because Shalit is in the Palestinian territories and Israel feels it is more dangerous to accept the demands of Palestinian groups. I hear Israeli leaders, both political and military, talk of the Hizballah exchange as a defeat for Israel and blame [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's government for a deal they see as shameful. So, potentially, Israel will be much more careful now in dealing with Palestinian demands.
It is then the job of the Palestinians and Egyptians to put more pressure on Israel and look for a more creative mechanism to accelerate the negotiations.
bitterlemons: Do you think an exchange will happen any time soon?
Hamad: No. I think this is a very complicated file and I don't see much progress.
bitterlemons: Hizballah appears very good at getting concessions from Israel. Meanwhile in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been negotiating with Israel for years, has yet to secure any prisoner concessions. What lessons are being drawn from this?
Hamad: That if you have a strong will and are supported by your people you can get more from your enemy. I think President Abbas--after 15 years of negotiations between the PLO and Israel and with things only getting worse, with no sign of progress or breakthrough or agreement--has to find a new mechanism. I think President Abbas should realize that the marriage between resistance and politics is necessary. Without power and without strength, Israel will give you nothing.
Palestinians have to understand that cooperation between Hamas and President Abbas will provide a stronger background to demand a release of prisoners or a lifting of checkpoints and so on. The division among Palestinians and this large gap between Hamas and Fateh make it much harder for Palestinians to achieve anything.- Published 21/7/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghazi Hamad is a Hamas official from Rafah.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.