Israel Hamas prisoner talks are mired by politics

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Israel Hamas prisoner talks are mired by politics

One would think that heart wrenching images streaming out of the Gaza Strip suggest that Israel has Hamas over a barrel in stalled efforts to revive prisoner exchanges.

Think again. Talks in the past week in Europe between senior Qatari, Israeli, and US officials, and in Cairo between Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, the second most prominent Gazan group, and Egyptian intelligence in Cairo, suggest otherwise.

The talks stalled after Hamas insisted that it would not engage in prisoner exchange negotiations unless Israel halts its military operations and agrees to a ceasefire.

US President Joe Biden admitted as much, declaring this week that “there is no expectation at this point” of a renewed prisoner exchange.

Even so, Israeli media reported that talks had not broken down.

A Qatari delegation was in Egypt to discuss options while David Barnea, head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency was expected to meet Qatari officials in the coming days in effort to revive indirect contacts with Hamas.

“We don’t fight just because we want to fight. We are not partisans in a zero-sum game. We want the war to end,” Husam Badran, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, told The Wall Street Journal.

Speaking a day later to Al Jazeera, Mr. Badran added that an “exchange deal can still be reached. But it cannot be reached without an end to the aggression. We are prepared for an ‘all for all deal,’” an exchange of all hostages held by Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad for the more than 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Hamas derives its leverage from its ability to ignore Gazan voices blaming it for the carnage its October 7 attack on Israel provoked and its willingness to endure Israel’s relentless, indiscriminate bombing on the back of the Strip’s population.

To be fair, with Israel determined to continue the war for an extended period until it destroys Hamas, the United States’ increasing criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war, and the international community’s focus on getting humanitarian aid into Gaza, the group’s strategy may prove the most effective.

Working in Hamas’ favour is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is caught in a Catch-22.

Mr. Netanyahu cannot ignore mounting domestic pressure to prioritise the release of hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7 rather than the destruction of the group.

At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu risks a break-up of his ultra-nationalist, ultra-conservative coalition if he makes concessions to Hamas in negotiations.

The prime minister fears that a break-up could accelerate his political demise with a majority of Israelis blaming him for the intelligence and operational failures that enabled Hamas’ October 7 attack in which more than 1,100 people, a majority civilians, were killed.

The risk of a break-up is enhanced by the fact that a majority of Israelis still in Hamas captivity are military personal.

Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad base their demand for an ‘all for all’ prisoner exchange on the template of past swaps involving Israeli soldiers. An ‘all for all’ deal would hand Hamas a political victory.

In 2011, Hamas freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians. In 1984 Israel exchanged 4,500 Palestinians for six Israelis held in Lebanon by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and two years later 1,150 for three Israelis captured by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

An ‘all for all’ deal would involve the controversial release of Palestinians convicted to long-term or life prison sentences on charges of murder.

The deal would potentially strengthen Hamas’ position in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority about resolving their long-standing differences and forming a united front in preparation for the day guns fall silent in Gaza.

At the same time, Hamas needs an agreement with the Authority to shield itself from a potential Palestinian backlash because of its provocation of the devastating Gaza war.

In a concession to the United States and an effort to avoid administering post-war Gaza, Israel has hinted that it might drop its rejection of the Palestine Authority governing the Strip.

Writing on the London-based, Arabic-language Saudi Elaph news website, national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, acknowledged international pressure to turn Gaza over to the Authority. “We make it clear that the matter will require a fundamental reform of the Palestinian Authority,” Mr. Hangebi said, adding that Israel “is ready for this effort.”

Palestine Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has described Hamas as “an integral part of the Palestinian political mosaic.” He suggested the group could join the PLO if it accepted its commitments, including recognition of Israel.

Mr. Badran, the Hamas official, insisted in his Wall Street Journal interview that “we want to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem” but ducked Al Jazeera’s question whether the group would be willing to recognise Israel.

“This question should not be raised while Israel is perpetrating war crimes in Gaza,” Mr. Badran said.

He was the second exile Hamas official in a week to either hint at a Hamas recognition as part of a post-Gaza war settlement or not reject recognition out of hand.

The talks with the Palestine Authority have created a rift between some exile Hamas leaders who favour joining the PLO on its terms, and Hamas’ Gaza leadership, which is focused on a victory of sorts by surviving the Gaza war and ensuring Israel’s international standing remains severely damaged.

Hardline Israeli opponents of an ‘all for all’ deal note that among the prisoners released in exchange for Mr. Shalit was Hamas’ Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar. Israel accuses Mr. Sinwar of masterminding the October 7 attack. He tops Israel’s most-wanted list.

Addressing a recent security cabinet meeting, Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi argued that it took the US military ten years to locate and kill Osama bin Laden.

Critics note that negotiations rather than military operations have led, so far, to hostage release.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad last month exchanged more than 100 captives, primarily women and children, for 240 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. This was during a Qatar-negotiated week-long truce.

Israel’s military campaign has produced primarily dead hostages killed in bombings and fighting and only one captive liberated alive.

Pressure on Mr. Netanyahu mounted after Israeli soldiers last week killed three bare-breasted male hostages waving a white flag as they escaped Hamas captivity.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have sought to step up the pressure with the release of videos of three more hostages allegedly killed in the fighting and several elderly captives.

To avoid the pitfalls of a swap involving Israeli military personnel, Israel, so far unsuccessfully, wants to limit the next round of exchanges to the release of 40 hostages, 19 women and two children still in captivity as well as older men in need of medical care during a one-week truce.

A limited exchange would allow Mr. Netanyahu to claim he is doing everything possible to get hostages released.

It would also provide him with cover to comply with US demands that the military transition into a low-intensity campaign in Gaza that would require less troops on the ground, involve more targeted operations, and reduce the risk of civilian casualties.

The shift in tactics is backed by military commanders who worry about the stress the war puts on reservists who have been under arms for more than two months.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.