Shalit release: A flawed deal between sworn enemies

Both Israel and Hamas are claiming victory in the prisoner swap that will free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by militants five years ago and held captive ever since. But don't mistake that for anything that might advance the peace process. If anything it may foretell more violence.

This deal, in which about half the Palestinians and Mr. Shalit were released Tuesday, wasn't conceived as a confidence-building move that was part of some larger, strategic vision to coax the two sides toward reconciliation. Instead, it was a short-term political fix calculated to shore up support among the hardest of hard-liners in both camps.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was willing to break with Israel's oft-stated policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists only because he needs the political boost from fulfilling a campaign pledge, and because it was apparent that the overthrow of autocratic leaders in the Arab world was making it unlikely he could get a better deal for Mr. Shalit's release.

But whatever short-term advantage Mr. Netanyahu gains from bringing Sergeant Shalit home comes at a steep price. By striking a deal with Hamas, he implicitly undermined the credibility of his only viable negotiating partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government in the

West Bank offers the only realistic alternative to Hamas. At the same time, he remains boxed in by the extreme right wing of his governing coalition, which would likely collapse were he to make any serious move toward reopening peace talks with Mr. Abbas.

Mr. Netanyahu vehemently opposes Mr. Abbas' current campaign to short-circuit a negotiated peace through U.N. recognition of Palestine as an independent state — and rightly so. But the Palestinian Authority is a far better prospect as a peace partner than Hamas, which remains committed to Israel's destruction. Hamas members are already saying they want to take more hostages to trade for the thousands of militants still held by Israel. That should hardly make Israelis feel safer.

Hamas, whose harsh rule in Gaza has caused its popularity to plummet, is just as interested in undermining Mr. Abbas as Mr. Netanyahu is. Faced with the potential loss of its headquarters in Damascus as a result of the popular uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and fearing declining support from Iran, the group is eager to enhance its stature with the new government in Egypt, as well as with Turkey and other regional players. By securing a deal that included the release of hundreds of militants aligned with Mr. Abbas' Fatah faction as well as its own fighters, Hamas strengthened its claim to represent all Palestinians, not just those in Gaza.

Thus, while the release of Gilad Shalit may be cause for celebration by his family and many others who followed his case, it hardly bodes well for the cause of peace. The product of a flawed deal between sworn enemies who have no intention of reconciling, it provides a momentary boost for Mr. Netanyahu and possibly a much more lasting benefit for Hamas, but at the price of raising the risk of more hostage-taking and violence. Most of all, it displays the tragic failure of leadership in a region that desperately needs it if the prospect for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is ever to become a reality.

It is unconscionable that an innocent young man like Sergeant Shalit should be made to suffer as a pawn in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He emerged from captivity with a message of hope that his release could be a catalyst for peace in the region. But unless Messrs. Netanyahu and Abbas take the opportunity to return to the bargaining table, it may only make matters worse.

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