Hamas Offered a Bullet to Bite

JERUSALEM – Israel’s outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert is risking a crisis of confidence with Egypt by insisting that a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas precede any Egyptian-mediated ceasefire arrangement to end the Gaza war.

Olmert overrode the objections of his outgoing defence minister Ehud Barak when his security cabinet declared emphatically on Wednesday that Israel would be willing to contemplate the re-opening of border crossings (from Egypt and from Israel) into Gaza – a key Hamas demand – "only when the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit is released."

Egypt had been on the verge of clinching an agreement for a truce acceptable to both Israel and Hamas. This abrupt Israeli change of priorities has put the Egyptians in an uncomfortable position, the leading Cairo daily Al-Ahram saying Thursday that the Israeli decision had put the ceasefire "into a dark tunnel."

Hamas officials were livid. Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, called the Israeli turnabout "tantamount to stabbing Egypt in the back." The border crossings must be opened immediately, he stressed, adding that the prisoners issue is "totally separate." Another Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, said Hamas would "resist" the attempt by Israel to squeeze further concessions.

In contrast to Israel’s position that both the prisoner exchange and the border crossings security to prevent arms smuggling are core issues of a ceasefire, for Hamas the heart of a durable, if time-bound, truce is the opening of the crossings because it desperately needs free flow of aid to rebuild Gaza. At present, Israel limits the transfer only of goods designated as "humanitarian aid."

Olmert’s volte-face also took the Israeli defence establishment by surprise, so much so that his chief negotiator with Egypt, reserve general Amos Gilad, took the unprecedented step of criticising publicly in a newspaper interview the new position of the prime minister, calling it "an insult to Egypt." The Israeli government had yet to address seriously the prisoner exchange issue, he said. The number and the identity of the prisoners on the Hamas list did not come up in the security cabinet discussions.

Hamas is demanding the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Corporal Shalit; Israel has until now balked at the release of many Palestinians convicted of carrying out lethal attacks against Israeli civilians.

Analysts suggest that what lies behind Olmert’s new stance is concern that Hamas is increasingly perceived as negotiating "on equal terms." Brushing off the defence officials’ complaints that the Shalit question has, until now, never been integrated in a truce arrangement, Olmert countered: "We harm ourselves if we admit that we did not achieve the goals of the first ceasefire (last June). There was no calm, arms-smuggling continued, and we did not get Shalit back. As a result, we wound up with the war."

Will Hamas persist in facing down the new Israeli challenge? Can it risk the possibility that there will be no ceasefire, and that the partial siege on Gaza will continue? Hamas is all too aware there is every possibility that, with the passing of the Olmert/Barak government, a new Israeli government of an out-and-out rightist bent may be totally disinclined to reach any kind of agreement with it.

Hamas alarm bells were undoubtedly ringing when news emerged mid- morning Thursday that a key player in last week’s inconclusive Israeli elections, Avigdor Liberman, head of the hard-line Israel Beiteinu party, recommended to Israel’s State President, Shimon Peres, that he give the mandate to form the next government to the right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The forthright Liberman position came with a minor addendum – that "a broad national unity government be formed around the three biggest parties" – the Likud, the centre-right Kadima and his own party.

Peres is now almost certain by Sunday, at the latest, to give Netanyahu the nod. Kadima actually finished one seat ahead of Likud, but Liberman’s outright opting for Netanyahu sets the seal on the faint hopes nurtured by outgoing foreign minister, the Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, that she might form a joint government with the Likud.

The only open question is whether Kadima will bite the bullet and agree to join a firm Netanyahu-Liberman government. Until now, Livni and her supporters have outspokenly rejected becoming a "fig leaf" for policies that would not include as a central priority a search for a peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority and with the Arab world.

Peace-making is distinctly not a top priority for the right-wing Netanyahu government now likely soon to assume power. So too, any deal with Hamas. It’s clear though, that Netanyahu would be greatly relieved if this set-to with Hamas is resolved before he takes the helm, so he does not have to make difficult decisions and bite a bullet that could endanger his new coalition from the outset.

All of which leaves Hamas facing a tough dilemma of its own: whether, before Netanyahu takes over, to bite the bullet of the new ceasefire terms fired by Olmert?

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.