One cannot but imagine the possibility, perhaps the fantasy, that Hamas will learn the lesson taught by Ahmadinejad`s release of the 15 British navy officers. The entire world breathed with relief as they left Iranian soil after being sent off by the Iranian president himself.
If something substantial was `paid` by Tony Blair to the Iranians, it is not within the domain of public knowledge. The profit to the Iranian regime, however, was far beyond what could have ever been prayed for by millions of Iranians worshipers gathering in the mosques of Teheran to mark the birthday of the Prophet.
Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh and the abductors of Gilad Schalit should be watching carefully. After almost a year of negotiations the release of Schalit seems no closer than from the first day after the June 25, 2006 attack on Kerem Shalom. After almost one year, the only indication of progress – presuming unverified media reports are correct – is a letter supposedly by Schalit to his family that Hamas gave to the Egyptians on September 9, 2006.
Hamas expected to be rewarded for the letter with at least a busload of minors and women prisoners released by Israel, but that never happened. The negotiations have gone through many stages and real progress has actually been made – agreement on the number of prisoners; categories of prisoners almost being agreed upon; and even specific lists of names of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel have been discussed. But Schalit, it seems, is still far away from being released.
PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert has spoken many times, in private and in public, of his willingness to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners – Israel is reportedly holding more than 10,000 of them. Olmert, however, is very reluctant to make any deal with Hamas that will include a large prisoner release, fearful of the consequences and the message that terrorism pays.
Tony Blair also refused to negotiate, but he was dealing with a wiser enemy, apparently. Blair was also a lot more reluctant to resort to arms, and he clearly feared escalating the situation on the ground. Of course, Iran is a lot further from London than Gaza is from Jerusalem or Ashkelon, which makes our case both potentially more dangerous and much more intimate.
In the hours following the kidnapping of Schalit, Israel bombarded Gaza, devastating public and private property, even destroying the main facility for transferring electricity to most of the population. In the months that followed Israel killed more than 250 Palestinians in Gaza. All of this punishment and pressure, including the almost total closure of Gaza and the economic sanctions imposed by Israel, have not brought Schalit home.
The continued suffering of the Palestinian people should have been enough to convince Hamas to find a better tactic to serve the interests of their people. But the message did not work.
Now perhaps Hamas will be inspired by the Islamic revolutionaries in Teheran, who have proven that it is possible to be both extreme in one`s beliefs and politically rational in international relations.
IT HAS BEEN reported that Syria assisted in securing the release of the British navy personnel. President Bashar Assad was personally involved in securing Iranian agreement to release the captured soldiers. Prior to the release, Assad thought that he had received a message of peace from Ehud Olmert delivered, apparently without request, by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But Olmert made sure, even from his vacation home in the north, to notify Assad and the world that Israel has no intention of negotiating peace with Syria.
A special announcement was issued by the Prime Minister`s Office spewing out the well-known slogans that Syria is part of the axis of terror and evil, and until it meets the US conditions Israel will not negotiate with the Assad regime.
The US`s preconditions on negotiations with Syria have been adopted in full by Israel, despite the fact that it was always Israel that demanded no preconditions from the Arabs.
The extremist positions of the likes of Hamas, Iran and Syria are the tactics of the weak. Those who have little to bargain with against the powers of the likes of the US, Israel and the UK often resort to positions that seem irrational in the eyes of the strong and powerful. Of course it would be wonderful if all the extremists moderated their positions prior to negotiations. In the world view of the powerful, it would be a lot easier to make concessions if the extremists gave in to all of the preconditions. But the extremists view this as capitulation prior to receiving even a promise of a tangible nature.
Magnanimity is not usually the characteristic of the weak. Ahmadinejad`s release of the British sailors was such a surprise because it was so out of character. It seems that Ahmadinejad understood that he could profit more from their unilateral release without payment than from the long anguish of threats and negotiations. Ahmadinejad wants to be included in discussions over the future of Iraq – much closer to his interests than whatever the UK could provide. He may very well have paved his way into those talks with a much wider welcome mat than before the whole kidnapping story.
THERE ARE clear lessons for Hamas here. There are also clear lessons for Syria and Israel. Syria could play a positive role in pressuring Hamas to release Schalit immediately, without payment.
Hamas could profit politically both in Israel and in the international community if it was to do so. Israel would also greatly profit if it removed all kinds of preconditions which prevent dialogue and negotiations.
Acceptance and even recognition can be the end result of dialogue and negotiations and not only a precondition. At the end of the process, the result is the same.
Interestingly, it is Iran which is challenging all of us to reexamine the rules of the game of the international chess board. Without excusing Iran for abducting the British troops in the first place, and without judging if in fact the British troops violated the territorial waters of Iran, the surprising end-game challenges the world to view Iran slightly differently. This has a great potential to influence the world-viewers in Gaza.
Let`s hope that they are watching.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.