Though it comes as a surprise to many, Hamas and Israel are both announcing that they have finally reached a deal to free Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of 1,000 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners from Israeli jails. If the deal goes through, Shalit will be the first kidnapped IDF soldier to return home alive. Other kidnapped IDF soldiers were either killed in captivity, never returned, or died during the rescue attempt.
For PM Bibi Netanyahu, today’s deal likely strengthens him politically, but there is potential for long-term damage. He has presided over a surprisingly stable coalition, and has seen his popularity rise since his speech at the UN General Assembly. Of course, this achievement could very well change into a liability if the 1,000 released prisoners set off another violent uprising against Israel. The big question that remains is the names on the list of released prisoners, and how many of them have Israeli blood on their hands. Though there will be great excitement in Israel at Shalit’s return, popular opinion has been mixed over a potential deal. A June Haaretz poll reported that 63% of Israelis favored a deal to free Shalit, but many Israelis still see the families of terror victims being ignored as the killers of their loved ones are set free. Right-wing Knesset ministers from the Land of Israel Lobby opposed the deal, saying, “we can already see before us the future victims of these terrorists.”
As I have written before, Egypt’s security interests vis-à-vis Israel have not changed significantly since the fall of the Mubarak regime, though public opinion must now be taken into account. This deal further emphasizes that there is stability in the security cooperation between Egypt and Israel. These interests include mediating between Israel and Hamas, cooperating with Israel on containing Hamas in Gaza, and maintaining control over the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai.
Hamas could be the big winner in this episode. They can make the argument that their tactics have delivered the tangible results of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the release of prisoners, while the PA’s UN strategy and security cooperation with the U.S. and Israel has produced very little. There will be a theoretical incentive to kidnap more soldiers, but after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Hamas is not looking to pick another fight with Israel. And Israel will be less restrained toward Hamas without an Israeli soldier at Hamas’s mercy. Still, after a period of waning popularity, this might be just what they are looking for.