You’re right, Emanuele. When Israel sent notorious murderer Samir Kuntar to Hezbollah for two dead soldiers in July, it all but guaranteed that the price for Gilad Shalit’s release would rise significantly. But Jerusalem’s apparent openness to dealing Hamas “more than one Kuntar” suggests something more fundamental: that Israel has entirely given up on short-term military options vis-à-vis Hamas, and is willing to accept defeat.
This is truly astounding. After all, Israel has never lost anything to Hamas–not diplomatically, and not militarily. Indeed, in stark contrast to the inconclusive 2006 Lebanon war that was perceived as a Hezbollah victory, Israel soundly defeated Hamas during the second Intifada: it assassinated its top leaders; hampered its movement of weapons and personnel throughout the occupied territories; and achieved meaningful international cooperation for countering Hamas’ fundraising capabilities. Even following Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Israel mostly succeeded in pushing the west to boycott the Hamas government–a boycott that was only strengthened following Hamas’s June 2007 coup in Gaza.
Moreover, there’s also the issue of timing. Why would Israel prepare for such a painful prisoner swap now? Within the next week or so, Tzipi Livni will likely assume office as Israel’s next prime minister, and has promised to intensify peace efforts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Naturally, giving Hamas “more than one Kuntar” in exchange for Shalit would be a disaster for these already improbable negotiations, as Hamas would be significantly strengthened.
At the time of Israel’s most recent prisoner swap with Hezbollah, Daniel Gordis offered the deal’s most eloquent defense: in Israel–where every young adult serves in the military–costly prisoner swaps critically reinforce soldiers’ confidence, and are thus worthwhile “mistakes.” However, this logic cannot apply to Israel’s dealings with Hamas, even when a living soldier–as opposed to two bodies–remains in captivity. As Iran and Hezbollah have intensified their threats towards Israel in recent weeks, it is impossible to see how handing a victory to Hamas–an otherwise losing organization–would strengthen Israelis’ resolve.