Minutes after the announcement of the deal enabling the release of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier held hostage by Hamas terrorists since 2006, a major controversy was raging. Did the Israeli cabinet make a potentially fatal mistake by voting to exchange a single low-ranking serviceman for 1,027 convicted Palestinian terrorists?
Whatever one's answer, it should be remembered that Israel's leaders had plenty of time—if not much else—to give this dilemma proper consideration. Throughout the entirety of Shalit's incarceration, it would crop up whenever rumors of his release began circulating. With a frequency that was frankly cruel, hopes for Shalit's imminent freedom would be raised and then abruptly dashed, leaving any debate about the parameters of a deal with Hamas looking like pointless speculation.
That's why, before asking whether the Shalit deal is a "good" or a "bad" one, we should try to understand why a previously elusive deal has now been reached.
Quite simply, for the first time in five dark years, the interests of all the parties involved aligned in favor of a deal.
Let's begin with Israel, the one Middle Eastern country whose democratic system ensures that the government of the day ignores public opinion at its peril. Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition has undergone a rough few months on the domestic front, facing widespread public protests over bread and butter issues like affordable housing, and sinking to a 36 percent public approval rating. In this fractious environment, Shalit's plight was a rare focus of unity—not that it yielded any benefits for Netanyahu, who was persistently condemned by the Shalit family for, they asserted, not truly wanting a deal.
Certainly, Netanyahu exercised extreme caution, but it's equally true that he had few other options. Several of his top advisors counseled him that previous disproportionate prisoner exchanges had emboldened the terrorists. In 1985, for example, many of the 1,150 Palestinian prisoners who were swapped for three IDF hostages in Lebanon returned to terrorist activity.
In any case, Netanyahu held few cards in the wranglings over Shalit's freedom. Hamas and the other Palestinian factions have always regarded their prisoners as bargaining chips, in stark contrast to the emotional identification of the vast majority of Israelis with Shalit and his family. Knowing this, Hamas pursued the Shalit negotiations as another front in their war on Israel; hence, and regardless of whether they appeared willing or unwilling, it was manifestly clear that the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood could not be trusted.
What, then, were the advantages of a deal for Hamas? For a start, Gaza's rulers have seized the opportunity to remind the world of their influence, at a time when Hamas seemed rather eclipsed by the campaign of Mahmoud Abbas's rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to secure international recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Jarred by the sight of Palestinian demonstrations in support of Abbas, Hamas can now claim the credit for Israel's release of a truly loathsome bunch of terrorists—among them a key operative behind the bombing of Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001, the murderers of the Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman, and several members of the mob that lynched two IDF reservists in Ramallah in 2000.
In addition, Hamas had a distinct interest in cooperating with the new regime in Egypt, which played, like its overthrown predecessor, a critical role in the Shalit negotiations.
It's widely understood that Hamas has high hopes of Egypt's post-Mubarak government, not least because of the growing influence of its Muslim Brotherhood comrades. Moreover, if any of the parties to the Shalit negotiations can be said to have emerged as a clear winner, it is Egypt—and not only because Hamas is now firmly in its orbit. Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi can confidently tell both Israel and the United States, just a few weeks after Egyptian commandos hustled Israeli diplomats away from their besieged Embassy in Cairo, that his new regime is indispensible to the region's stability.
That will bolster Egypt's credibility in future political, diplomatic and even military confrontations with Israel. It also sends the message that Egypt is a candidate to lead the Muslim and Arab worlds, at a time when both Iran and Turkey—largely invisible in the Shalit negotiations—are jockeying for that very position.
Against this background, then, how should the Shalit deal be judged? One should be extremely wary of anything that boosts either Hamas or Egypt, which has made noises about reneging on the Camp David Treaty signed with Israel in 1979. Moreover, there are no guarantees that future IDF conscripts won't end up in the same position as Gilad Shalit, taken hostage and spending months and years in captivity, while Israeli politicians again battle with the dilemma of releasing more Palestinian terrorists into the hands of the kidnappers.
Equally, the soldiers of the IDF, who represent Israel's best guarantee of security in an unwaveringly hostile region, will have received a welcome boost in morale as a result of the Shalit deal. As Shalit returns home—promoted to the rank of sergeant-major—those above and beneath him in the IDF's ranks can be certain that each one of them will be regarded, before anything else, as a human being.
Israel faces many more battles with terrorists and rogue states down the road. That is precisely why the mood and mindset of those of its citizens doing the fighting has to come first.