Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been released and Gilad Shalit is home. How will this deal shape regional dynamics in the years to come? I’ve been studying “engagements with hostile non-state actors” for several years (another name for the subject is “talking to terrorists”), and like the many scholars and diplomats who have written on the subject, I have plumbed the yawning crevasse between rhetoric and practice. Western nations don’t talk to groups they’ve designated as terrorists, unless those groups have something they want. Historically, the U.S. and Israel almost always talk to their enemies.
What can we expect as strategic payoff from the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange?
1. Israel’s enemies know that hostages are their best investment. Hezbollah reaped an asymmetrical deal in 2008 that did wonders to consolidate its power in Lebanon, trading two dead Israeli soldiers for live prisoners and nearly 200 bodies. The Hamas trade values one living captured Israeli as equal to about 1,000 living Palestinian prisoners. Hamas, Hezbollah, and other resistance groups now have every incentive to capture Israelis, dead or alive, and barter them. It’s officially an established tactic. “If one episode of this epic is finished there are others that we will go through till all prisoners are realized,” Hamas said in a statement published on its website. Hezbollah was equally direct, listing three decades of prisoner swaps and declaring, “These deals, along with the accord achieved today, have taught Zionist entity that the Israeli troops are under the reach of resistance heroes, who proved that this enemy doesn’t understand but the language of power.”
2. Force is better than politics at kick-starting negotiations. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have gone nowhere for years. Mahmoud Abbas’ application for statehood was treated almost like a declaration of war. Meanwhile, the Palestinian faction that actually acts like it’s at war with Israel and denies its right to exist extracted a favorable deal for itself after five years of negotiating over its hostage.
3. Corollary: Israel responds to violence. Hamas has argued since 2005 that its rockets and other attacks from Gaza drove Israel to dismantle its settlements there. That argument has an echo in Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and disastrous battlefield performance against Hezbollah in 2006. Those, like Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who argue for a political rather an armed resistance, will have an even harder time now.
4. Egypt is more a bystander than a player on Israel-Palestine. There was some analytical hot air about the boost this deal will give its brokers in Cairo and Gaza, but let’s be pragmatic. Hamas is in trouble with its constituents in Gaza and the enthusiasm for the deal is unlikely to reverse the steady erosion of the Hamas government’s popularity in the strip. Similarly, the military rulers in Egypt were praised for spurring along the role, but their popularity depends on whether they secure Egypt. If Hamas moves its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo, then Egypt might gain some leverage.
Rather than a breakthrough, this should be perceived as historically continuous with previous deals, including the 2008 release of Samir Quntar to Hezbollah and previous swaps of Israeli corpses for prisoners in 1996, 1998, and 2004. In short, this deal makes quick shrift of the fiction that Israel “doesn’t talk to terrorists,” and it reinforces the conflict dynamic.
(Originally published here in The Atlantic.)