Paul Pillar

Israeli-Palestinian Diplomacy is Alive

The deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for about 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians is one of the oh-so-rare bright spots in anything having to do with negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. The deal is good news, of course, for the prisoners on both sides being released and for their families. For the rest of us, the good news is that despite the strong and unrelenting animosity in both directions between the two parties that struck the deal, a deal was nonetheless struck. And this was a complex agreement. It involves a phased release of the Palestinian prisoners and a possible side agreement between Israel and Egypt, which played a mediating role, entailing an Israeli apology for the recent killing of Egyptian security personnel following a cross-border Palestinian raid.

The motives of the two parties to the agreement are not all pure. They both would like to sideline the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. Isn't it ironic that such bitter adversaries as Hamas and Israel share an interest in sticking it to someone who has been an interlocutor to both?  It is further ironic that the Israeli government, which has repeatedly avowed its refusal to have anything to do with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, is willing to strike a separate deal with Hamas itself.

Political and diplomatic conditions have evolved in ways that made a deal more feasible now than before. Abbas's statehood initiative at the United Nations, for example, may have given Netanyahu's government all the more incentive to make Abbas look irrelevant. Probably at least as important is that the Palestinians' turn to peaceful protest rather than violent resistance to Israeli occupation lessened Israeli concerns about future violence involving some of the released prisoners.

The main lesson from the prisoner swap deal is that even strong enmity between the parties does not preclude agreements, including complex agreements, if there is sufficient will to strike a deal. Yes, some of the final status issues that divide Israel and the Palestinians are inherently challenging, but the main impediment to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not the challenging nature of the issues but a lack of will to resolve them.