published Thursday, October 13th, 2011

A deal in the Middle East

Israel's agreement to an Egyptian-brokered deal to swap more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for five years initially prompted rejoicing in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. Why not? The return of Sgt. Gilad Shalit should end Israeli angst about the nation's inability to bring a soldier home. The release of prisoners allows Palestinians to celebrate the return of their sons and daughters. In some Israeli circles, though, the euphoria was short-lived.

The prisoner exchange appears straightforward. Hamas will release Shalit. In return, Israel will free more than 1,000 Palestinians -- including, sources say, more than 300 prisoners serving life sentences and nearly 30 women -- from prison. When the exchange will take place is uncertain at this writing, but officials involved say the exchanges could begin within a week.

While there is genuine relief in Israel that a young soldier held captive for about a fifth of his life will soon be reunited with his family, there is growing concern that the price Israel paid for his release might be too high. There is particular concern that the release of so many Palestinians convicted of terrorism is inimical to peace.

"If many terrorists are released in this deal, it will be an immense incentive to kill Israelis and to carry out further abductions," said Uzi Landau, a cabinet minister who is against the exchange. "This deal will be a huge victory for terror." Others echoed his concern.

They warned that those released could lead new and increasingly violent actions against Israel. Others say it will inspire Hamas or similar groups to kidnap civilians or capture soldiers for the sole purpose of later exchanging them for Palestinians held in Israeli jails. That's always a possibility. Most knowledgeable observers say there are between 5,000 an 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Israeli leaders seem willing to take the risk that the prisoner swap might lead to more violence because of the political benefits the deal might engender. The swap permits Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take credit for redeeming a captive, thus reducing pressure on his administration. More importantly, it shows the world that Israel will negotiate with Palestinians.

That's a crucial point at a time when Palestinian leaders have used Israel's prior reluctance to engage in talks as the basis of an appeal to the United Nations for statehood. Netanyahu is not the only one likely to profit politically from the swap.

Hamas likely will gain additional support among Palestinians for securing the prisoners' release. Egypt, too, stands to benefit. Its role as successful broker buffs the nation's international image at a time when domestic events have tarnished its global standing.

There's no certainty that the prisoner swap, if it takes place as planned, will increase chances for regional peace. The exchange does prove, however, that meaningful dialogue between long-time antagonists is possible and implies that additional conversations are feasible. In the troubled Mideast, that could be construed as a sign of progress.

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