Kyle Beardsley on Gilad Shalit

Kyle Beardsley, the author of The Mediation Dilemma, has written this thoughtful piece about the mediated prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit:

The Swap for Shalit and the Long-Term Risks of Mediation

The mediated prisoner swap that allowed Sergeant Gilad Shalit to return home has raised two different concerns about its effect on Israeli security: the fear that the released Palestinians will resume their armed struggle against Israel and the fear that this will encourage Hamas and other terrorist groups to capture more soldiers for a similar ransom. While both concerns are real, they are easily exaggerated and miss the more important damage done to intra-Palestinian relations.

The first concern tends to ignore the fact that the greatest threat to Israeli security is no longer suicide bombers or armed militants but rather rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, which are virtually unaffected by this prisoner exchange. The second concern tends to focus too much on the ultimate payoff and overlooks the fact that it took six years to reach a deal; meanwhile, Israel escalated its fight against Hamas. The ransom for Mr. Shalit was neither immediate nor easy to attain.

More importantly, these concerns distract from perhaps a bigger concern regarding what the deal means to the authority problem among the Palestinians. Since at least the 2006 Palestinian National Authority elections and the intra-Palestinian civil war that followed–and arguably well before 2006–no single entity has been able to claim being the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people. For a moment it seemed as if Mahmoud Abbas had begun to gain the needed legitimacy as he took the call for Palestinian statehood to the UN and has received widespread support for the formation of a Palestinian state. That moment is now over as the Hamas leadership proved more than capable in working with the Egyptians and Germans to produce the deal to release hundreds of–potentially over a thousand–Palestinian prisoners.

The authority problem is not only an issue for the Palestinians, but it also is a crucial reason for why a lasting peace with Israel remains elusive. Any deal with Abbas and his Fatah party is meaningless if the Palestinians have split allegiances. If the problem of extremist violence spoiling the peace process was an issue when power was relatively consolidated in the hands of Yasser Arafat, the spoiler problem will be much worse when power is most clearly not consolidated. The more that Israel and the international community treat–and treat with–Hamas and Fatah as having distinct constituencies, the further we are from ever realizing a peace deal between Israel and some entity that represents the Palestinians.

It turns out that this dynamic is fairly typical of mediated outcomes, which often do quite well in the immediate-gratification department and less well in yielding durable peace. In recent cross-national studies, I have found that international conflicts that experience mediation are more likely to realize short-term concessions and agreements but also become more likely to relapse after a few years of peace.

The deal that brought Mr. Shalit home has the potential to share the same tradeoff between short-term and long-term success. On the one hand, Egypt’s role was essential to having any possibility of reaching a deal. Having the prisoners first released to Egypt solved a major issue as either side risked having the other side back out once it had fulfilled its obligations. In addition, mediator involvement allowed for a deal to be reached without face-to-face negotiation and the mutual recognition that could imply.

On the other hand, Egypt and Germany’s role has the potential to further lengthen the detour toward peace in the Middle East. Just as the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords—with the handshake between Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn—did wonders for the consolidation of Arafat’s authority, there is a real risk that this landmark prisoner swap has bolstered Hamas’ credibility as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians and reduced the fruitfulness of any Israeli negotiations with Abbas.

Although Israel has much to celebrate in the return of a lost son and little reason to worry that the deal worsens its immediate security, the long-term damage to the peace process that must precede an ultimate Israeli-Palestinian deal–between the Palestinian factions–is likely to prove substantial.

Kyle Beardsley on Gilad Shalit