On Tuesday, captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned to Israel following a historic deal between Israel and Hamas, a deal that has in fact been 14 years in the making.
The bitter relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and head of Hamas’s Political Bureau Khaled Mashal, the two figureheads in the Shalit deal, is part of a long history that can be traced back to an assassination attempt in 1997. The conclusion of the Shalit deal despite these leaders’ 14-year contentious common history and deeply conflicting ideologies was possible only because the obstacles to negotiation — the ideologies and personal histories of both Netanyahu and Mashal — were ultimately eclipsed by both leaders’ political pragmatism. Their desire for political survival enabled their cooperation, however reluctant. It is exactly this practicality, reflected in the Shalit deal, that can allow them to maintain a functional — albeit fraught — relationship.
In September 1997, 47-year old Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Mossad to carry out an assassination in neighboring Jordan. The target: Hamas’s Jordanian branch chief, 41 year-old Khaled Mashal. On September 25, two Israeli agents successfully poisoned Mashal with a lethal nerve toxin, but in a dramatic turn of events, were chased through the streets of Amman by one of Mashal’s bodyguards and eventually apprehended by Jordanian authorities. As Mashal lay dying on a hospital bed, Netanyahu was forced to send the poison’s antidote to Amman and to release imprisoned Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in exchange for the return of the captured Israeli agents.
The failed assassination attempt humiliated Netanyahu and cast a shadow over the remainder of his first term as prime minister, which ended in 1999. In contrast, Mashal was catapulted from obscurity to notoriety, and following Israel’s assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in 2004, assumed the chairmanship of the Hamas Political Bureau.
Last week, in a twist of fates, Netanyahu and Mashal once again shared the spotlight on the world stage. In a televised speech from Jerusalem, the 61-year old Netanyahu, now in the midst of his second stint as prime minister, confirmed that an agreement had been reached with Hamas regarding Shalit, and noted triumphantly that Shalit “will return to Israel in the coming days.” Minutes later, in a televised press conference in Damascus, the 55-year old Mashal lauded the exchange, which secured the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, as a “national Palestinian achievement.” Lost within the overly typical rhetoric surrounding this rather atypical occasion was the glaring irony of the night: Once again, the fates of both leaders rested in the successful conclusion of an agreement.
Their ability to reach that agreement highlights a political pragmatism capable of overshadowing both a contentious common history and deeply conflicting ideologies. It is a quality shared by Netanyahu and Mashal, and one that is key to the future of their relationship and their respective political leaderships. The practicality demonstrated by the conclusion of the Shalit agreement is one that can allow even these, the bitterest of enemies, to continue to see past ideological red lines and act in their own best interests – generally addressing their peoples’ interests in the process.
Despite all his talk about wanting to secure Shalit’s release, an agreement with Mashal’s Hamas was likely among the last things Netanyahu wanted to do during his second term as prime minister. Ideologically, Netanyahu is fundamentally opposed to prisoner exchanges. He wrote in Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists, “Prisoner releases only embolden terrorists” and “encourage precisely the terrorist blackmail they are supposed to defuse.” Still, overwhelming public support for a deal and mounting domestic social unrest forced him to ultimately sign off on the unfavorable terms of the exchange, which included releasing roughly 300 prisoners who were serving life sentences. In the end, Netanyahu needed Shalit’s release to survive politically — he needed to reach an agreement with Mashal.
The terms of the agreement were also unfavorable for Mashal, who was ideologically opposed to any deal that did not include the release of all top Hamas commanders and other prominent Palestinian prisoners.
Despite holding out for years in the hope that Israel would meet these demands, Mashal – like Netanyahu – was left with no other choice than to sign off on the deal at hand, a deal that leaves a number of prominent Palestinians, most notably Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, in Israeli jails.
This is due to a number of factors. First, Hamas’s standing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has deteriorated since the assumption of power in 2006, and the recent bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN has led to broader popular support for rival Fatah. Moreover, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Mashal’s primary patron, has been weakened by constant protests and riots, calling into question the stability of Syria, one of Hamas’s greatest allies. Desperately in need of domestic and international support, Mashal needed the prisoner release to survive politically – he needed to reach an agreement with Netanyahu.
Naturally, the Shalit deal will be spun according to the rhetoric of the respective sides, but a deeper analysis indicates that, when it comes to Netanyahu and Mashal, pragmatism trumps ideology. Political survival is the primary concern for these star-crossed leaders, a commonality that on Tuesday culminated in the return of Shalit after years in captivity. One can only hope that this pragmatism will win out in other facets of the harsh relationship between Netanyahu and Mashal, and more broadly between Israel and Hamas.
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