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The End of the Tunnel: Breaking the Gaza Impass

As Israel is showered with rockets and its southern towns are threatened with assault tunnels, the war in Gaza escalates by the day. A premature ceasefire, however, may be only the prelude for a more devastating round in one year or so. How can we use the current crisis to produce a better reality for Israel and Palestine? Political Owl with a bold proposal to break the impass. 

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This Article was also published in Compress

On July 17, IDF troops opened the heavy gates of Gaza, clearing the way for armour and infantry forces. This land operation, the second of its kind since the Israeli disengagement from the Strip in 2006, has relatively limited ends: to block  the assault tunnels and to destroy rocket depots in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the operation is causing vast suffering in Gaza, with heartbreaking pictures of dead and wounded men, women and children.  Most Israeli citizens feel that the IDF must obliterate the rockets and the assault tunnels, each and every one of which is designed to perpetrate a mass massacre in Israeli towns and villages. A volatile “ceasefire” (such as in 2012) may provide a temporary relief for both sides, but in all probability it will ensure another round of death and destruction in two years or less. We and the Palestinians are both trapped in a bloody, vicious cycle, a Midd​le-Eastern version of “catch 22”. How do we get out of this cycle, for the benefit of both sides? This is the most important question we face at the moment.

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In my opinion, In order to reach an enduring settlement in Gaza, Israel should take advantage of Hamas’ own demands: “Do you want to lift the siege, build a nautical port and an airport and have prisoners released? We are ready to comply, as long as you give us something in return.” The Israeli Prime Minister should declare that Israel is ready to lift the siege, release the prisoners arrested in Operation “Brother’s Keeper” (June 2014) and allow generous international assistance for Gaza’s reconstruction, in return for full demilitarization of the strip from rockets and assault tunnels, supervised by Cairo, Ramallah and Washington. The lifting of the siege must be gradual, simultaneously with the disarmament process, but, I believe that  Israel must declare this initiative as clearly, simply and publicly as possible. Thus, even the Palestinians and their allies in the international community may understand there is a hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. They must trust that Israel is ready to lift the siege completely as long as its security is ensured. It is important to emphasize, that the aforementioned plan does not include ideological demands from Hamas, that are  unreasonable. The Gaza government will not be forced to recognize Israel, nor prior agreements or even the Palestinian authority in Ramallah. They will only be forced to disarm themselves from their rockets (an ineffective weapon, good for nothing but terrorizing civilians). Such a bold solution, which will probably require intense military pressure on Hamas, is already supported by leading experts in Israel and abroad, including Yuval Diskin, the moderate, creative and thoughtful former head of Shin Bet (General Security Service).

lifting of the siege for disarmement: the only solution for Israel and Gaza

lifting of the siege for disarmement: the only solution for Israel and Gaza

However, in order to leverage Operation Protective Edge to a durable political solution, Israel has to launch an equally dramatic initiative in the West Bank. The truly difficult question is “how”? How could we avoid another round of futile negotiations with the Palestinian Authority? As it is well-known, the Palestinians are highly skeptical about negotiations with Netanyahu and his government, and rightly so. The last round failed not only due to differences in essence, but also because the Israeli side refused to submit maps and wasted time in lengthy squabbling on agendas, time tables and other minute technical details. The Palestinians, not without justice, came to believe that such negotiations were merely an Israeli maneuver to drag time and divert attention from further settlement buildup. Therefore, the new initiative proposed here is designed to break the impasse, surprise the other side and spare us a new round of futile talks.

The first steps have to be initiated by Israel, again – as simply, clearly and dramatically as possible. Prime Minister Netanyahu has to declare his willingness to immediately recognize a Palestinian State with “temporary” or “controversial” borders. Only then can we negotiate the rest of the problems at hand. At the same time, Israel shall submit the Palestinian side a map with Israel’s vision for its future borders. Further buildup in the settlements would be put on hold as long as the talks are going on, in return for Palestinian refrain from hostile moves, such as approaching the International Court in Hague.

A bold political initiative in the West Bank: Palestinian President Abu Mazen

A bold political initiative in the West Bank: Palestinian President Abu Mazen

Mahmoud Abbas has to be invited, as the president of the State of Palestine, to speak in the Knesset as a formal guest. This visit’s choreography must be based on the historic visit of the late Egyptian President Anwar A-Sadat. That visit, as we all remember, was made prior to the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but its importance in paving the way and creating the atmosphere for the talks is undeniable. Only the optimistic atmosphere created by the visit allowed both sides, Israel and Egypt, to make considerable concessions contrary to their own professed ideology. Emotions are a very important currency in the Middle East.  Such an initiative, based on prompt recognition of Palestinian independence, may leverage the Gaza crisis to solve our long-term problems by creating future horizons for a two-state solution. In addition, it may convince the Palestinians that their time is not wasted, that they achieved something grand before negotiations have even begun.

Such an initiative, simultaneously with a disarmament settlement in Gaza, presumes an Israeli coalition of a different sort, certainly without Naftali Bennet and his hardline Jewish Home Party. It may require a bold political move, similar to the establishment of Kadima during the tenure of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or at least an ad-hoc coalition with the Labor Party. Netanyahu will not go for such an initiative willingly. Only strong pressure by the centrist parties in the coalition may create adequate conditions for its commencement. In any case, the initiative proposed above may serve as a purpose, goal and guiding vision for moderates in Israel. Only such a vision, a light at the end of the tunnel, may save us from the hell of reoccurring violence and leverage the Gaza disaster to a durable political solution.

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A bloody transaction, or: why one Israeli prisoner is worth one thousand Palestinians?

I am proud to officially open the English version of the “Owl”. In this blog, I will try to open new windows to shadowy corners of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Middle Eastern politics. Today I would like to introduce you to the hidden logic of Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps.

In the history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, prisoner swap deals have always played a prominent role. Only recently, in October 2011, the Israeli government agreed to liberate and repatriate 1027 Palestinian prisoners, some of them arch-terrorists and murderers with blood on their hands, in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit. This deal gave a free rein to intense feelings in the Israeli public, ranging from hurrahs to cries of anguish. The supporters of the swap, most of them from the left, or center left, emphasized the solidarity of Israeli society, its humanness and its indebtedness to the soldiers fighting in its name. The people who opposed it from the right, however, lamented the government’s “lack of spine” in front of terrorists. Some of them expressed the rather justified fear, that this hugely unequal deal may encourage Hamas to kidnap yet more soldiers.

Gilad Shalit immediately after his repatriation to Israel

And yet, both supporters and skeptics were amazed by the unreasonable “rate of exchange” in the Gilad Shalit deal. One Israeli soldier for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners? How can it be? In Maariv, the conservative publicist Ben Dror Yemini raged because of the “high”, “intolerable” price, and even some observers on the radical left raised similar concerns. For example, Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian, a well-known anti-Israeli venue, that an exchange of one thousand Palestinians for one Israeli soldier is nothing but dehumanization of Palestinians, as the exchange rate “tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen [see footnote] are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours”.

As usual with Israeli-Palestinian affairs, all sides are splurging in a swamp of self-righteous, patriotic speech, and few dare to confront the simple, cynical and shocking truth behind the barter: prisoner swaps are a transaction, which follows basic rules of supply and demand just like any other. When an item is in short supply, and consequently high demand, its price tends to rise. If, however, the supply is high and the demand is low, the price will usually decrease.

If we accept this simple idea, it is not so difficult to understand why one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was swapped for 1027 Palestinian prisoners, and why his name is known all over the world, while their names are mostly unknown. It has nothing to do with the fact that Shalit is a “legitimate” soldier, and its Palestinian counterparts are “terrorists”. The economic principles behind such transactions are indifferent to moralistic considerations such as this. The crucial fact is, that it is very difficult for the Palestinians to kidnap an Israeli soldier, while the IDF can easily arrest terrorists or other Palestinian activists in their hundreds and thousands. Here is the key to  understand the swap: Gilad Shalit is more “expensive”, only because it was more difficult and dangerous to kidnap him.

Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Al-Aksa Brigades during the second Intifada. Prominent prisoners, such as him, were not released

And what about the so-called “prominent” prisoners, the “colonels” and “generals” of Hamas, as well as political leaders such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, whom Israel refused to release? Because they are more dangerous for Israeli security, the demand for their release and consequently their price is much higher. And indeed, we have seen that Israel refused to release most of the “prominent” prisoners, and the few who were released were promptly expelled from the West Bank. Here, also, Hamas had finally approved the deal based on an understanding of its underlying economic principles. Its leaders preferred to release a large number of “cheap” prisoners, than to insist in vain on the repatriation of a small number of “expensive” ones.

Such an analysis may seem cold and heartless, but sometimes reality had to be faced as it is. From this point of view, it is interesting to ask: how can Israel improve its position next time it will be faced with a kidnapped soldier? First of all, the public campaign for Shalit’s release was a double-edged sword. From the one side, it is clear that without it, the government would not have been pressured to negotiate and pay a price for the deal in the first place. From the other side, though, this noisy, emotional and highly effective campaign raised the demand for Gilad Shalit in the Israeli side. His price, it is needless to say, soared with the demand. Given the absence of such a public campaign, it is reasonable that the swap would not have taken place at all (the demand is too low), or, if it would have taken place, the price in liberated Palestinian prisoners would have been significantly lower.

Elhanan Tenenbaum- Israel paid a very high price to release a drug dealer

Moreover, a cold analysis may show that contrary to the speculations of right winged publicists, there is no way to dramatically change the exchange rate in such prisoner swaps. As long as it is more difficult to kidnap Israeli soldiers than to arrest Palestinian terrorists, the formers will be more expensive than the laters; significantly more expensive. However, even in these circumstances, the mistakes that Israel had done in the previous prisoner swap with Hezbollah had dire consequences. Just to remind you: Israel had agreed to pay a high price and to release the terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered a little girl, for three dead bodies of soldiers. An even higher price was paid for Col. (retired) Elhanan Tennenbaum, a dismal drug dealer who fell into Lebanese hands. The leaders of Hamas, who have seen that Israel is ready to pay such a high price even for three dead bodies and one criminal, naturally concluded that the price for a living soldier will be substantially higher. In the future, I believe, Israel must not negotiate as long as it is unclear that the prisoner is alive, and never, never again should they barter living prisoners for dead bodies. This deal was so stupid, and its consequences for future swaps so dramatic, that it is a mystery for me how and why the Israeli government approved it.

Meanwhile, there is no reason not to assume that the next “bloody transactions” will be different. Patriotic lamentations or self-righteous rage are futile, as they cannot change the solid economic logic behind such deals. If Israel does not want to pay a similarly high price next time, it should refuse to do business altogether. Namely, to ignore kidnapped soldiers just as the US army is doing. However, taking the Israeli public opinion into account, it is hard to believe that such a policy is possible.