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A Shift in Israel-Hamas Relations?

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
October 19, 2011

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The exchange of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners, many of them convicted terrorists, may indicate a shift in Hamas' position, says former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk. Hamas' leadership has been based in Syria and heavily influenced by Iran, both of which pushed back against any deal with Israel, says Indyk. But the Syrian regime's recent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood drove Hamas' external leadership to look for a new headquarters, namely Cairo. To allow this relocation, Egypt insisted that Hamas make concessions to end the Shalit stalemate. Indyk notes that while the deal isn't likely to produce any short-term breakthrough, it could augur "a long-term trend on Hamas' path toward greater pragmatism and flexibility and willingness to do a deal with Israel."

What is the overall significance of the prisoner exchange?

The deal's human dimension can't be dismissed, because it was what drove the deal. And Israel's desire to save one soldier's life is what led to this lopsidedness. The broader political implications aren't positive. Hamas has long argued that its approach--violence, terrorism, kidnapping, hostage-taking--is the most effective way of retaining Palestinian rights, whether that's getting prisoners released, getting settlements evacuated, or getting territory liberated. That narrative has been vindicated by this deal.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is Hamas' political opponent, was unable to achieve a major prisoner swap like this, which included the release of many terrorists with a good deal of blood on their hands. Abu Mazen has been unable to achieve through negotiations the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the West Bank or the liberation of Palestinian prisoners. So those who reject compromise and peacemaking with Israel and talk violence and terrorism are the ones who have been strengthened.

Do the Israelis see this as a setback?

You sure wouldn't know it from the way that the Israel public is welcoming Gilad Shalit. This shows that they value the return of a soldier more than they care or are concerned about the threat of terrorism. That's because Israel is a small country with universal conscription. And with every family having a child or grandchild in the army or going into the army, they want to know that their leaders are going to do everything possible to bring them back from the battlefield if they are captured--or indeed, if they are killed, that their remains will be returned. This is creating an inversion of values, so that rather than the army protecting civilians, it's the civilians who have to protect the soldier. In recent times that has led to a restraint on the use of force in wars with Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, with Hamas. This inversion of values could be problematic for the next conflict, but at the moment the context is one in which there is very little terrorism, very little violence.

The so-called Middle East Quartet--the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN--is due to come to Jerusalem later this month to try to jump-start talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Does the prisoner exchange make talks more relaxed or does it make it tougher?

It makes it tougher. First of all, those talks [weren't] going anywhere anyway. President Abbas decided some time ago that there was no point in negotiating with the current government in Israel, that the gap between his minimum requirements for a Palestinian state and the maximum concessions demanded by the current Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu would not allow him to risk what was left of his credibility. So he chose this unilateral route of appealing to the United Nations for membership and the establishment of a Palestinian state. I don't see any indication that he's changed his course. If anything, he found something that made him more popular among Palestinians. Netanyahu, even though what he has done is popular in Israel, will not want to be seen as making concessions on substantive issues to the Palestinians, having made such a very big concession on the issue of terrorism.

Were you surprised that Netanyahu agreed to this swap, given that he's such a strong opponent to dealing with terrorists?

No. Bibi is a politician. He's a good politician, and he saw in the last two years the way in which the Shalit family had managed very effectively to make the issue of their son's freedom a popular issue among the Israeli public. It became overwhelmingly apparent in mid-summer, with major demonstrations in support of freeing Shalit, that there was a strong majority of the population that supported it. That was manifested in the cabinet vote, in which twenty-six out of twenty-nine ministers voted for this prisoner swap. Netanyahu could give up his principle without fear of political retribution because of the shift in public mood. But the critical element in this shift, and it's another irony in the situation, is that terrorism had been dramatically reduced by cooperation between Abbas's Palestinian Security Forces in the West Bank and the Israeli army. Yet Abbas, who helped reduce the terrorism and violence against Israelis, is the one who's going to suffer politically as a result of this deal.

What does the deal say about the new Egyptian government, which mediated with the German government? Is this something the Mubarak regime could have negotiated as well?

Hamas has long argued that its approach--violence, terrorism, kidnapping, hostage-taking--is the most effective way of retaining Palestinian rights. That narrative has been vindicated by this deal.

The negotiations were conducted by the same Egyptian intelligence services that conducted negotiations in Mubarak's time, so there has really been no change in that regard. What's changed is that Hamas was more willing to do the deal and make concessions this summer than they were previously. The key to understanding why they became more flexible lies not in the Egyptian revolution but in the Syrian revolt.

Hamas' external leadership has been based in Damascus, where they are under the direct influence of Iran and Syria. The Iranians have had no interest in any deal that would lower the flames of Arab-Israeli conflict, because it is that conflict which enables them to spread their influence into the Arab hotbed, right up to the borders of Israel. Therefore, in the past they pressed Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the external Hamas based in Damascus, not to do the prisoner deal with Israel. Much to the frustration of Egyptian and German mediators, they were unable to pull this deal off at critical junctures because of Iran telling Meshaal not to do the deal.

But that was not the only reason. Domestic politics in Israel made it difficult to do the deal; the security chiefs in Israel had previously opposed it. Still, what made this particular deal possible more than anything else was the fact that Khaled Meshaal was in a very awkward potion in Damascus. The Syrian regime was killing Sunnis, many of whom were part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Iran was pressing Meshaal to come out in support of the Assad regime, and rather than do that, he started to talk to the Egyptians about shifting his headquarters out of Damascus to somewhere else in the Arab world, such as Cairo. The Egyptians said to him: You can come, but there are two things that you have to do. One: Agree to the reconciliation with Fatah, and that happened in May of this year. Two: You have to be more flexible on the prisoners deal. That happened in July, when the Egyptians were able to convey to the Israelis a more reasonable offer from Hamas, which produced the deal that was consummated October 18.

What does this deal foretell for the future?

While in the short term, this is unlikely to produce any kind of breakthrough to reconciliation with Israel, it does signal a long-term trend on Hamas' path toward greater pragmatism and flexibility and willingness to do a deal with Israel. It may in the end produce reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

The United States is just an onlooker in this whole thing?

Well, the United States was certainly interested in trying to free Gilad Shalit, but it didn't have any role to play because of course it has no relationship with Hamas.

Should the United States change its policy on Hamas or is that politically impossible?

The United States has clear and sensible requirements in terms of dealing with Hamas. It is a terrorist organization; it preaches terrorism and violence. The United States as the custodian of the peace process has to maintain certain principles, and you can't promote a peace process with a party that wants to turn it into a war process. But there are various things that the United States can do to encourage what I believe is a long-term trend in Hamas' greater pragmatism. Eventually, that could produce a greater moderation.

The heart of that process is the fact that Hamas is no longer just a terrorism organization. The fact that it controls the Gaza Strip puts it in a daily dilemma between feeding the people in Gaza or fighting Israel. They cannot have it both ways, so most of the time they choose to feed the people rather than fight Israel. The external Hamas leadership shifting out of the Iranian-Syrian camp, the rejectionist camp, into the more moderate Arab camp that supports brokering peace with Israel can reinforce that tendency. Khaled Meshaal opposed the Gaza Hamas people taking control of Hamas, precisely because he knew they would be put in that dilemma. But history has moved on, and he is in much less of a position to oppose them. What we are also seeing here a shift from the influence of the external Hamas to the greater influence of internal Hamas.

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