Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval of the prisoner swap with Hamas was a surprise to many observers. They consider his decision to be completely contradictory to his political and ideological orientations, on the one hand, and to his long standing commitment to ‘counterterrorism’ on the other.His position has raised many questions among Israeli commentators and writers. Supporters of the deal have actively promoted the decision, while its opponents have adopted a skeptical tone.
Netanyahu addressed the motives and reasons behind his decision in a speech in front of the Israeli Cabinet, which endorsed the deal. The prime minister focused on the emotional and positive aspects of the deal, while suggesting the possibility that developments in the Arab world would have a negative impact on the chances of ever reaching a deal. However, commentators and experts think several other factors facilitated the move.
These commentators point out that leading figures in Israel’s security and military institutions (Shabak, Mossad, and IDF) supported the deal, while Hamas demonstrated an unusual flexibility on the issue. Meanwhile, other developments in the Arab world — including the UN bid for Palestinian statehood — Netanyahu’s political distress, and the Iranian issue all served as motivation.
Before supporting the deal, Israel’s military establishment conducted a thorough examination of possible military operations for securing Shalit’s release. Reports indicate that both Benny Gantz, Israel’s chief-of-staff, and Yoram Cohen, director of Shabak, believed that such an operation would not produce Shalit alive. They concluded that Shalit would only return through a prisoner swap with Hamas.
News reports also indicate that Defense Minister Ehud Barak shared in this conclusion after examining details of the situation. Barak advised Netanyahu to adhere to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s principle toward negotiations with the ‘enemy.’ In Rabin’s words, “When no military option exists, there is no choice but to enter negotiations and pay a price, through a deal that releases terrorists, no matter how difficult that is.”
The second factor was the flexibility that Hamas had shown. Political, security, and media circles in Israel have acknowledged that the prisoner exchange represents a significant achievement for Hamas. Nevertheless, the prevailing belief in Israel is that if it were not for Hamas’s flexibility and concessions towards some conditions and demands, Netanyahu would not have approved the deal in its existing form.
Ironically, Netanyahu has garnered some political capital as a result of Hamas’s flexibility and the successful negotiation. Israeli observers claim that Hamas demonstrated flexibility on two major points, resulting in the breakthrough. Hamas agreed on the deportation of a large number of prisoners outside of the West Bank, and had given up their demand for the release of a number of senior political leaders in Israeli prisons.
The third factor relates to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for statehood at the UN. Israeli analysts claimed that the US administration feared a prisoner exchange would improve Hamas’s standing among Palestinians, at the expense of Abbas and Fatah — an opinion that was common among Israeli circles. But in the wake of the UN bid, Abbas’s status had been strengthened, and his position was no longer in jeopardy. Alternately, Netanyahu may have wanted to intimidate Abbas following the Palestinian leader’s UN performance.
Developments in the Arab world may have also precipitated the deal. Netanyahu spoke recently of the changing context in neighboring countries, particularly in Egypt and Syria, which may have shifted the dynamics of a potential deal.
These observers claim that Netanyahu realized the German mediator for the prisoner exchange, Gerhard Conrad, had exhausted all his efforts, and that the fate of the negotiations rested in the hands of Egypt’s military council. There were serious concerns in Israel that the council, which held the negotiations, might have lost their ability to mediate in a few months, and may also fall under the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. By concluding the deal now, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) received a much needed accomplishment on the Arab and international stages.
Meanwhile, the deteriorating situation in Syria may have also jeopardized the negotiations. Some Israelis believe that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime supported finalizing the deal in order to improve his image internationally. They add that Assad exerted influence on Hamas’s leadership in Damascus, underscoring the need for them to show more flexibility. Concerns prevailed in Israel that this influence, no matter how strong or weak, would vanish with the fall of Assad. Consequently, some in Israel spoke of a closing window of opportunity if the Arab uprisings progress further.
Some commentators also point to Netanyahu’s declining popularity in Israel as an explanation for the deal’s timing. Following the wave of socioeconomic protests that spread in Israel, the doctors strike, and the resignation of experts, Netanyahu took a substantial hit in the polls. Netanyahu was under severe criticism from the media regarding his reluctance, lack of decisiveness, and inability to break the stalemate on the one hand, and his inadequate dealings with ‘domestic’ problems, such as the local protest movement, on the other.
The final factor often cited by Israeli analysts is Iran. Some speak of Netanyahu’s desire to prepare the ground for bigger challenges to come, namely what is known in Israel as the ‘Iranian threat.’ Those who highlight the Iranian angle, base their thinking on Netanyahu’s latest speech at the Israeli Cabinet, where he addressed developments in the region that may restrict Israeli strategic action in the near future. These sources believe that Netanyahu was mainly referring to Iran. In their opinion, it would be best if Israel approached dealings with Iran by projecting an image of flexibility, pragmatism, and readiness for concessions.