Serious talks must start with a prisoner exchange

Daily News Egypt
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When it comes to a prisoners exchange between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, there are still difficult negotiations lying ahead. The internal dynamics on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides will be a hindrance. Nevertheless, one should expect that, perhaps sooner rather than later, there will a deal to exchange Palestinian political prisoners for the Israeli soldier abducted near Gaza by Hamas, Gilad Shalit. On the Palestinian side the release of Palestinian political prisoners is a top priority among the general public. Over 10,000 prisoners languish in Israeli jails, and their families and friends form an influential lobby pressuring the Palestinian government. President Mahmoud Abbas’ inability to bring about the release of prisoners after his election in January 2005 undermined the perception of his effectiveness among a majority of Palestinians. From an Israeli perspective, there are several precedents for prisoner exchanges, whether involving Palestinian or Lebanese prisoners. Families of captive soldiers have also frequently worked as effective lobbies pressuring the government. For example the case of Ron Arad, the Israeli navigator shot down over Lebanon in the 1980s, has haunted successive Israeli governments. Still, prisoner exchanges often fall prey to internal politics. The present Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is widely seen as weak, and parties in the opposition are lurking to pounce on any move, including meeting Palestinian demands for an exchange. The problem is, as one Israeli writer said recently albeit in a different context, when Israel is strong, it has no need to make peaceful gestures; and when it is weak it lacks the ability to do so. As a result, Palestinians have concluded that only by capturing soldiers can they secure the release of their prisoners. Look at the period following the election of Abbas. For a whole year, until parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Israeli government had an opportunity to “bolster Abbas’ standing. Israel was even urged to do so by the Bush administration. A release of prisoners would have been a very effective move in this direction. But it was only after Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian legislative elections that the Israeli government entertained the idea of releasing imprisoned Fatah official Marwan Barghouti. The problem the Israeli government faces now is how to do so without giving victory to Hamas or leaving Barghouti indebted to Hamas rather than to Abbas. From a broader regional and international perspective, the exchange of prisoners is an important first step in a series of moves that may pave the way for a possible resumption of a political process. There is no certainty that such a process will start, but it is certain that a political process will not start without being surrounded by a more positive atmosphere. Such an atmosphere would almost certainly need to include an exchange of prisoners and a mutual ceasefire in Gaza as well as in the West Bank. At least, this is the Palestinian understanding of the European Union statement issued shortly after the end of the Arab summit in Riyadh last month. The EU emphasized that it would be judging the performance of the new Palestinian government on the basis of its deeds. This was a realignment of its position, compared to earlier statements where only “words were mentioned: that is, the Palestinian government’s acceptance of the three conditions set by the Quartet. There is therefore a clear interest on the part of the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority to expedite the exchange in order to lay the ground for a possible political process. For now, however, the Israeli government has refused to discuss final-status issues, such as Jerusalem, borders, and refugees, and has not accepted the 2002 Arab peace initiative endorsed again at the recent Arab League summit in Riyadh. The Oslo process failed because these issues were not finalized at the beginning and instead became a victim of the balance of forces between the two sides. In spite of its weak government, Israel as a state is strong. Could it be that because it is strong, it has no need for peace? George Giacamanis a political analyst and teaches in the MA program in democracy and human rights at Bir Zeit University. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter that publishes contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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