No impact on a dead process

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Perhaps surprisingly to some, the exchange of prisoners negotiated between Israel and Hamas, with Egypt’s mediation, might not have any impact at all on the peace process. This deal was most remarkable in its overwhelmingly positive reception by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Israelis were a little bit cautious but mostly supportive. Palestinians, for their part, considered it a huge achievement.

Despite this "win-win" outcome, it is difficult for any deal to have an impact on a political process that simply no longer exists.

The prisoners’ swap was implemented at a time when the peace process has become stagnant. It is so defunct that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his allies, who are strongly committed to that process, went to the United Nations to ask the world to look for new approaches for peacemaking different from the bilateral negotiations process established at the Madrid conference in 1991.

Still, many analysts have tried to make linkages between this deal and the prospect of the resumption of the peace process. Some were pessimistic, suggesting that the deal would empower Hamas and strengthen the movement’s typical argument that Israel does not understand the language of peace and responds only to the language of force. It is for this reason, Hamas says, that Israel was reluctant to stop the expansion of settlements in the framework of talks with the moderate Palestinian leadership, while it was willing to concede on releasing prisoners in negotiations with the hard-line faction Hamas.

The other dominant line of analysis was that the successful implementation of this deal between Hamas and Israel might open the way for agreements between them on other issues: reducing the closure and blockade on Gaza, for one.

What I think is more pertinent is that the timing of this deal was obviously political. Leaks about the years of negotiations over the prisoner swap package indicate that the majority of its elements were already on the table but had not yet come to be seen as satisfactory by either Hamas or Israel. It was changing political realities for both parties that convinced each to accept what they had previously sought to improve.

The balance of power in Palestinian society shifted recently in favor of rival faction Fateh due to Abbas’ principled stand that negotiations not be renewed without an Israeli settlement freeze, combined with his challenge to Israel and the United States in calling for full membership for Palestine at the UN. This shift meant Hamas needed to use its strong cards to trump Fateh and bring about some balance in public opinion.

Internal politics were also decisive in bringing the Israeli government to the deal. The persistent and effective campaign of Shalit’s family and friends contributed to creating public support for the exchange. This made the exchange a political asset for Netanyahu, who used it to increase his political cache. Facing internal challenges from ongoing social justice protests, Netanyahu needed a political achievement that would turn the public’s gaze elsewhere. Also, the crisis in the peace process had brought him increased international criticism and pressure.

The only clear analytical conclusion one can draw from this exchange, then, is that the Palestinian prisoner issue must be a component of any future agreement with Israel. The joy felt in all Palestinian towns and villages this week showed just how dear the plight of the prisoners is to most Palestinians. Indeed, it is difficult to find a Palestinian family that has not had a member imprisoned in Israel, experiencing the grief, fear and loss endured by the family of now-released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

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