The deal to release Gilad Shalit is not just about Shalit. There is also something deeper, far more strategically-significant, about the accord. This may be an opening towards a long-term “understanding” with the Hamas.
You see, for years one of the main arguments against concluding a prisoner exchange with the Hamas for Gilad Shalit was that such a deal would weaken the Fatah regime of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Well, so be it! Abbas is anyway a dead horse. He has no peace to offer Israel, nor can he guarantee an extended period of quiet.
Abbas destroyed the last bit of confidence that Israelis might have had in him with his vitriolic, defamatory and maximalist speech delivered at the UN on September 23. He made it clear that he will not make the concessions necessary to achieve peace with Israel. Moreover, Abbas does not control Gaza and his control over parts of the West Bank is ephemeral too. He will disappear soon from the political scene.
Thus the most Israel can realistically hope for in the medium-term is a period of truce. Call it an extended strategic interregnum in the conflict. Call it an agreed stand-off. Call it a cooling-off period. Call it conflict management. If you’re really optimistic, call it a period of measured disengagement and quality-of-life improvement. If you’re super sanguine, call it long-term confidence-building.
Whatever the case, Hamas may be better placed to guarantee such a lengthy truce than Abbas. Hamas has shown that it can control its firepower and enforce discipline on other Palestinian factions. It has an interest in further enfeebling Abbas and Fatah. And for the first time, perhaps so does Israel.
Internationally, Abbas embodies the impatient international expectation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can and will be settled within a year by bringing about an Israeli withdrawal from almost all the West Bank including eastern Jerusalem and the consequent establishment of a fully sovereign Palestinian state. All this, without due consideration of Israeli national claims to Jerusalem and parts of Judea and Samaria, without truly secure border arrangements, and without a final settling of all Palestinian refugee and other claims. Such a deal is both unrealistic and a bad idea.
So, the pushing aside of Abbas and the diplomatic path he represents is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it is time to realize that we are still dealing with an irredentist, jihadist Palestinian national movement that will one day have to be crushed again, before it will be ready for a reasonable deal with Israel. Perhaps we have to go back to hunting and targeting Palestinian terrorist leaders, not coddling them. Actually, that is exactly what the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) promised Israeli cabinet ministers last night: that it would track and execute any released Hamas gunmen who return to terrorist activity.
I have no illusions about Hamas leaders (or the now-radicalizing Egyptians, or the Syrians, or the Iranians). They will continue to stockpile sophisticated weaponry and nurture the dream of destroying Israel. But they can be deterred for a while, and down the road cut down to size. And in the meantime, Israelis may gain an extended respite from conflict, during which we will continue to make this country militarily stronger, ideologically firmer, and economically more prosperous.
Perhaps the Shalit deal, albeit risky and humiliating, will move us into a new period of tactical and mutually-beneficial understanding with Hamas.
* Originally published in Israel Hayom, October 12, 2011.