One year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swallowed hard and made a decision that most Israelis understood was unpalatable but necessary: trading 1,027 imprisoned terrorists to Hamas in exchange for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. On the anniversary of the unsightly deal, Hamas is still bragging about the ransom it exacted from Israel and promising to kidnap more Jews. As Haaretz reports, Hamas is celebrating not just with its boasts and threats but also by releasing a video about Shalit’s capture and imprisonment. The Israel Defense Forces has been on its guard since Shalit’s capture in 2006 but each cross-border raid from Gaza as well as those that have come via Sinai in the last year have had as their goal the creation of more Gilad Shalit dilemmas for Netanyahu.
In some quarters, this might revive the debate about the wisdom of Netanyahu’s choice that, as his critics pointed out at the time, certainly enhanced the prestige of Hamas and strengthened their grip on Palestinian public opinion. Even if Netanyahu could never have willingly consigned a conscript like Shalit to unending imprisonment or death, those arguments were correct as far as they went. But the real reason to revisit the Shalit episode is not to second-guess the deal but to get a better understanding of Palestinian political culture and the slim chances for peace.
The point of Hamas’s chest-thumping 12 months after the Shalit deal is not to twit Netanyahu. As much as many serious thinkers bewailed the ransom, bringing Shalit home to his family only enhanced his popularity. Any reminder of this tough decision actually helps the prime minister as he prepares for a re-election campaign in which the opposition has no credible opponent for the country’s leadership.
What Hamas is doing with its histrionics is to puff its own reputation on the Palestinian street. With the prestige of its Fatah rivals on the decline and the Palestinian Authority seen as a bankrupt and corrupt failed state in the making, Hamas looks to remind ordinary Palestinians that they have done what Mahmoud Abbas cannot do: humiliate Israel and inflict pain and suffering on the Jewish people. Indeed, with Hamas being challenged by even more radical Islamist groups such as Islamic Jihad and other splinter groups, Gaza’s rulers see their key to popularity in reinforcing their image as the tormenters of Israel.
This is important not just because it makes the reliance placed on Abbas and the PA by both Israel and the West look like a shaky proposition but also because it highlights what is still the key to winning the hearts and minds of the Palestinian street: anti-Jewish violence.
The competition between Hamas and Fatah is seen not just in their on-again, off-again attempts to form a unity government but in the way the two churn out anti-Semitic invective in their official media and broadcast outlets.
What friends of Israel ought to remember most about the Shalit deal was not so much the horror of murderers being released by Israel to the consternation of the families of terror victims but the joyous welcome that those who killed without mercy received when they returned to Gaza.
So long as Palestinian groups can only curry favor with their people by boasting of killing or kidnapping Jews rather than by trying to give them a better life (something a genuine moderate like PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad knows only too well), talk about peace between Israelis and Palestinians is futile. That is something the majority of Israelis have come to understand and is one of the reasons why Netanyahu is an overwhelming favorite for re-election. It is to be hoped that this is also a lesson that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will take to heart if they are tempted next year to begin another campaign of pressure against Israel to make concessions to Palestinians who have no interest in peace.