The best hint the Middle East could provide as to the ramifications of last week’s prisoner exchange for the overall conflict came two days after the exchange itself. It was the dramatic death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. The pace of events in the region, particular in light of the Arab revolutions surrounding Israel and Palestine, is so great and so varied and unpredictable that no single event involving repatriated prisoners could possibly have a lasting effect.
Yet even if the ramifications in and of themselves are likely to be relatively short-lived, a few of them stand out because they dovetail with and strengthen previously-existing political dynamics. One is the timing: whether by design or accident, in raising the public profile of Hamas the exchange tends to dwarf Fateh and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, shortly after Abbas’ seeming triumph in presenting his bid for state recognition to the United Nations in late September. Both Hamas and the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opposed and criticized the Palestine Liberation Organization’s UN bid. Hence they would appear to share an interest in exploiting their prisoner exchange to diminish its impact on the Palestinian and broader Arab street.
A second ramification concerns Hamas’ overall strategic standing as ruler of the Gaza Strip. By dealing at length with the Hamas leadership through the good offices of Egyptian military rulers–who in turn appear to be cultivating close cooperation with Hamas’ parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood–Israel has strengthened Hamas’ leadership profile in Gaza. Some might argue that this also strengthens Hamas on the West Bank and on the overall Palestinian political scene. But that effect, if it happens, is likely to be countered actively by both the West Bank-based PLO and the Netanyahu government.
This is not the case regarding Gaza. Given Netanyahu’s obvious reticence to engage in a genuine two-state deal with Abbas–it negates his own ideology and would bring down his coalition–he is presumably happy to contribute to the strengthening of the current three-state or three-entity reality: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. After all, it facilitates a status quo that he can live with politically, particularly at this time of unrest in neighboring Arab states.
Not that Netanyahu is now likely to seek a broader dialogue with Hamas: his ideal situation calls for quiet on both the West Bank and Gaza fronts, yet without any meaningful political engagement. He can even draw temporary encouragement from the fact that the prisoner swap helped strengthen Israel’s relationship with the Egyptian regime without, apparently, inviting new pressures to deal more forthrightly with the Palestinians, as would have been the case under Hosni Mubarak. Of course, peaceful stalemate on two Palestinian fronts is not a sustainable reality. But that seemingly does not perturb the Israeli prime minister.
Thus the prisoner deal reduced the likelihood of a productive Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But this is hardly an earthshaking event. After all, the prospects were practically non-existent even before the swap, and not just thanks to Netanyahu.
Abbas opted many months ago to pursue UN recognition because he believes that this strategy can strengthen his chances of achieving a state in the West Bank, along something close to the 1967 lines, with a capital in East Jerusalem. In parallel, he has apparently concluded that no Israeli leader–across the political spectrum from Ehud Olmert to Netanyahu–will ever agree with him on the pre-1967 "narrative" issues of the right of return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and additional holy sites. This is his unspoken reason for abandoning negotiations.
Abbas, in other words, is opting for a partial, territorial solution imposed in part by the international community. Sadly, Netanyahu fails to see the advantage for Israel in getting out of the West Bank, with adequate security provisions and a stable neighbor, thereby preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state–even at the cost of recognizing that there can be no dramatic "end of conflict" or "end of claims" with that neighbor.
The prisoner exchange and its ramifications have little direct relevance for this compelling reality, which remains the real focus of Israeli-Palestinian relations.