Some of what I plan to post here will actually be op ed and letter to editor submissions that were not published. Here's one I wrote way back in October about trading a settlement freeze in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an IDF soldier imprisoned by Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu should publicly offer to extend the settlement freeze in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage by Hamas. Whether Hamas says yes or no, Netanyahu will come out the winner.
Despite the best efforts of the Obama administration, the current round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has reached an impasse. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to negotiate so long as Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Netanyahu claims domestic politics precludes him from extending the freeze, especially after the Palestinians failed to negotiate until the waning weeks of the original freeze.
The Obama administration hasn’t given up hope yet. It has offered Netanyahu a package of incentives to reinstate the freeze while pressuring Abbas to acquiesce to some compromise less than a complete freeze. But neither side seems ready to budge.
Therefore, the ultimate success of these negotiations currently hinges upon Netanyahu’s willingness and ability to surmount right-wing opposition to extending the settlement freeze. For negotiations to continue, Netanyahu needs new sources of domestic support. More pessimistically, Netanyahu also needs a scapegoat should negotiations collapse.
A public offer to Hamas to exchange a settlement freeze for the release of Gilad Shalit would achieve both of those ends.
In the summer of 2006, Hamas militants crossed the Israel-Gaza border and kidnapped then-Corporal Shalit. Mounting international pressure, multiple military clashes, and several rounds of negotiations have all failed to bring Shalit home. Currently, Hamas demands the release of approximately 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.
That is a tough pill to swallow for many Israelis, who balk at the large number of prisoners and fear that such a deal would encourage further kidnappings. But at the same time, the Gilad saga has resonated deeply within Israeli society. Nearly every Israeli household has some father, mother, son, or daughter serving in the military and can only too well imagine the tragedy that has befallen the Shalit family. If there is any cause that could rally Israelis to support a settlement freeze, it is the freedom of Gilad Shalit.
Plus, Israel has already shown a willingness to seek creative solutions with its offer to extend the freeze in exchange for Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli convicted of spying against the U.S.
Unfortunately, it is not clear Hamas would be interested in a Gilad-for-freeze deal. Through Gilad, they gain leverage over the Israeli government. It is unlikely Hamas would want to give up that leverage for the sake of a peace process sponsored by their Palestinian rivals. They much rather force Israel to release Hamas members from prison. Or just as likely, they might simply prefer to maintain a state of tension with Israel to build popular support for their armed resistance platform.
Yet Hamas would refuse the deal at its own peril. Palestinians desire an independent state above all else. The building of settlements precludes the realization of their aspirations in the most tangible of ways: the physical usurpation of the land of their future nation. Moreover, these negotiations represent the best chance for Palestinians to achieve statehood in the near-term.
Hamas would be left with a stark choice. Should they do what’s best for their organization and refuse the deal? Or should they do what’s best for Palestinians and release Shalit? Palestinians would be watching carefully to see where Hamas’ true interests lie.
Moreover, a Hamas refusal would allow Netanyahu to displace much of the blame for the negotiations collapsing. In this way, Netanyahu wins whether Hamas says yes or no. Either negotiations go forward or Hamas gets the blame.
This win-win situation works whether Netanyahu truly desires peace or not, a matter of contentious debate. Assuming Hamas would refuse the deal, Netanyahu could cynically make the offer to solely create a scapegoat that would obscure his own insincerity. If by some surprise Hamas does accept the deal, Netanyahu could easily find other obstacles to peace beyond settlement building.
For that reason, the United States should exert pressure to ensure that such an offer is extended with sincerity and that any resulting freeze is both comprehensive and durable. Moreover, the U.S. cannot allow such an offer to preclude other avenues that might allow talks to progress. President Obama must continue to think creatively about how the U.S. can prod, bribe, and compel the parties to return to the negotiating table. A trade of a settlement freeze for Gilad Shalit’s freedom is only one among many options.