Celebrations rang out in Israel when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted “I am bringing Gilad Shalit home!”
The deal is part of a prisoner swap that was approved by Israel’s cabinet in a 26-3 vote early today. In exchange for Shilat’s freedom, Israel will release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. After five years in captivity, the deal is more important emotionally than it is politically. Nonetheless, it is still an important stepping stone for future peace given the fact that agreement between the two sides is very rare.
For now, however, the deal is unlikely to curtail the conflict as the ongoing expansion of existing settlements by Israel is only going to create more anti-Israel sentiments among Palestinians. Peace is not achievable under Netanyahu’s current policies towards the Palestinians, even if minor diplomatic breakthroughs occur. It is possible that a different Israeli government would be willing to talk to Hamas or use such a prisoner swap in peace negotiations, but not Israel's current government.
This is not the first agreement between Israel and Palestine over Shilat. In 2009, Hamas sent a DVD that reassured Israel that Shilat was still alive in return for the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners. Some high-ranking Israeli officials are against similar Shilat deals in the future. Uzi Landau, Israel’s minister for infrastructure criticized the agreement calling it a “huge victory for terror.” Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, warns of security consequences and notes that the deal gives more incentive for more kidnappings. This kind of political rhetoric, though, only hampers the peace process. Besides, as Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor, notes “Israel could round up all the [prisoners] within 48 hours if it so wished.”
The Shilat deal is not politically significant. Its impetus is purely emotional. After 1934 days in Hamas captivity, Shilat is alive and coming home, unlike other captives who are beheaded on television. The exchange does not change the fact that Israeli settlements in West Bank are continuing unabated. Those who say that Shilat’s release is an important step towards peace are wrong.
This is not a sign that Netanyahu is willing to talk to Hamas. Exacerbating the political situation between Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu is trying to set up a task force designed to look into ways to legalize illegal settlements on Palestinian land, a move that will further strain the already fractious peace process.
The truth is that Shilat’s release is politically irrelevant in the current calamitous political climate between the two sides. It might be important in the long-run, under new Israeli leadership, but not under Netanyahu. It does nothing to offset the current enmity between the two sides, and if it does it will only be transitory. But, for now the swap has achieved the most fundamental rule of any negotiation: a win-win situation.
Photo Credit: PikiWiki