THE BLOG

Shalit Swap: Only Temporary Relief for Israel/Palestine

The move is historic. After 27 years, Israel was involved in exchanging Palestinian prisoners for a soldier. Yesterday's rolling coverage was a world event with commentary trying to get a sense of more than why the present swap happened, but what will happen next.

The swap follows a period of constant decline of Israel's image worldwide. The rift between Turkey's over off-shore killings of civilian activists had spread into Egypt, where the Israeli embassy was attacked by a crowd, and the main issue on the UN's agenda last month was whether or not Palestine would be granted "independent state" (full member) status. On all these issues, and in the light of ongoing Arab unrest, the Netanyahu government looked to be without sound reason or a moral compass.

Yesterday's exchange -- one Israeli for 1,027 Palestinians -- changes the mood to a considerable degree. The actors all moved, and certainly with motives. The impact will be defining the course of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but there are also questions concerning Hamas, Egypt and, for obvious reasons, Turkey.

Primarily, even if it came after some 20 different Egyptian proposals, this is a deal between Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership. Without any consideration of a "win-win" for both, it would not have happened.

Netanyahu, squeezed both at home and abroad, may have seen it as an opening to show the outside world that he is a partner after all; and as a "lesson" to Mahmoud Abbas for insisting on independent status for a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu apparently worked hard to build upon relations with Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Egyptian military council, and his key assistant, General Murad Muwafi, head of intelligence. The Israeli PM had also earlier issued apologies to Cairo, and by not doing it to Turkey, he marked that Egypt will be the one to continue to have an intermediary role in any prospective peace talks. Tantawi, seeking to consolidate his power base before the Western powers, can only be thankful.

Hamas undoubtedly has a point when it comes out and claims victory; and it is from now on a strong actor that will be part of any peace settlement. Most of the prisoners released belong to the movement, and the high number now free will be perceived by a large chunk of Palestinians to have triggered a real challenge in favor of lifting the embargo. It seems also rather timely for Hamas, whose popularity had been fading recently.

But, when the euphoria in Israel and Gaza is over, as can be easily predicted, the agenda will come back to its real content. Can any progress ever be possible without the lifting of the embargo of Gaza and negotiations start (seriously, this time) between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for a peace deal? Will Hamas recognize Israel's legitimacy as a state, and will Israel cease seeing Hamas as a terrorist organization? What about the (now) increasing gap between Abbas and Hamas leadership?

The swap, therefore, can ease the tension only temporarily. So, what to expect now? There are two scenarios. Shalit's release has remained a key element for the past four years as a leverage to "build confidence" between the parties, particularly as a test of goodwill for Hamas. If the release is the first part of a greater deal, it should logically lead to a total lifting or further easing of the embargo over Gaza, soon. Can it happen? A lot depends on how much of a popular boost Netanyahu will have at home to go any further. The anger over release of so many Palestinians has so far "balanced" the joy over Shalit. If the Netanyahu government is unable to go any further, the anger and tensions will not take long to reoccupy the mindsets of Palestinians. The Israeli PM tactically may choose to leave the Abbas vs. Hamas conflict further adrift to soon find out that the real issues such as Gaza and an independent Palestine refuse to go away. Playing for time and delaying in the case of this conflict has only served violence, fear, destruction and terror.

Netanyahu may also find out soon that the need to repair relations with Turkey will not go away either. Yesterday, Bülent Arınç, spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, noted, "Turkey has been instrumental both in keeping Shalit alive and the swap deal." The fact of the matter is Israel is still being helped by two powers in the region -- Egypt and Turkey. It is time the Israeli government does the right thing and treats its friends with due respect.