Split governments mean split TV screens. While the Fatah leadership was circling the globe trying to secure a UN vote for a Palestinian state, the Hamas leadership was back in the region, mostly in Egypt, putting final touches on a prisoner exchange deal with Israel. Today, Israel celebrates the return, after five years, of soldier Gilad Shalit, and Hamas celebrates the beginning of the release of around 1000 prisoners, hailing from different Palestinian political factions, but all freed due to the dealings of Hamas. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president, may be trying to solidify his legacy with his attempts to achieve Palestinian statehood, but in the meantime Hamas, through terror, was able to secure a major victory for the Palestinian people.
This split-screen moment reminds me of another one, in July 4, 2007, when I sat in the Ramallah office of Riad Malki, who at the time had two government portfolios, information minister and minister of justice (he?s now the foreign minister). He was showing me the headlines of the newspapers proclaiming the Palestinian Authority?s victory in getting foreign aid money released to pay the salaries of the public workers?money which had been held up due to the Hamas victory in Gaza during the elections.
But Hamas stepped on these headlines when, that evening, it freed captive BBC journalist Alan Johnson, showing that they held the power not only to grab news away from the Fatah leadership but to change the dynamics of the region with a single gesture. And, now, with this dramatic agreement to release Gilad Shalit, Hamas has once again stepped on Abu Mazen?s headline.
It?s likely that Hamas wanted a deal because of the turmoil in the Arab world, especially in its leadership?s hometown of Damascus, but also to take the momentum away from Abu Mazen?s statehood bid, in which they are not participating. In addition, Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political leader, is in search of a new, safer headquarters town, like Cairo, were the Egpytian military to allow it. It?s unlikely that the Israelis will like this very much, but they?ve set a new precedent by negotiating with Meshal (no matter that they say no Israeli and Hamas leader stood shoulder-to-shoulder through the negotiations nor did they even sign a joint piece of paper), so they would have little luck in demanding that the Egyptians not harbor Meshal.
So why would Bibi Netanyahu go through with the exchange? Gilad Shalit?s release gives the Israeli leader a victory that nearly all Israelis support. It gives him a headline that distracts from the opposition to a Palestinian state, and to the continuing construction of settlements.
The question is, what happens now? The prisoner exchange will only continue to weaken the Mazen-led government. The real game-changer didn?t happen: at the last moment, reportedly, the Israelis decided not to free Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. That is a terrible shame. Had he been freed, he would have solidified Fatah support not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. He would have provided a successor to Abu Mazen and a likely negotiator for the Israelis, if the present government indeed wants to come to an agreement on two states, which is far from clear. With Barghouti still in prison, and with Hamas on top for the moment, and with Abu Mazen continuing his global journey for international recognition, the freeing of Shalit does little to overcome the political stalemate.
And meanwhile, the money is no longer flowing from the United States to the Palestinians. The Republican-dominated Congress has temporarily suspended USAID funds to the Palestinian Authority and is threatening to cut off more, inflicting even more harm upon the Mazen government?which, ironically, is on the side of the Palestinian political spectrum that has firmly renounced violence.