Assad exploits the Shalit affair to play his Palestinian card
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prepared a fresh list of concessions, termed "far-reaching" in security circles, for the German intelligence officer who is acting as broker to present to Hamas this week – in the hope of breaking out of the five-year impasse over a prisoner swap for the release of Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit.
Much to his surprise, the prime minister found the sands had shifted again – not once but twice. As soon as the ruling military junta in Cairo took charge of the process, debkafile's military and intelligence sources report, Syria's Bashar Assad moved in.
Netanyahu and David Medan, coordinator of Shalit negotiations, had intended the German mediator to put the new concessions before Hamas. They include substantially fewer demands for hard-core Palestinian terrorists to be deported upon release instead of returning to their West Bank homes, and the inclusion for the first time of East Jerusalem residents and Israeli Arabs serving sentences for terrorist offences.
But the scenario played out differently.
Instead of applying to Hamas-Gaza or Hamas-Beirut, the mediator flew to Cairo and presented the revised list to the new rulers of Egypt. He acted in accordance with the deal Egypt and Hamas struck for Cairo to reopen the Gaza-Sinai crossing point at Rafah on May 28, which obligated Hamas to reciprocate by bringing the Shalit affair to closure.
Since Hamas' military chief of staff Ahmed Jabari was the senior party to the Rafah deal, he was invited to Cairo last week to receive Israel's new proposals and make good on his word.
However, our sources report that the Shalit question was not at the top of Cairo's agenda with the Hamas military chief: Before raising it, the Egyptian rulers demanded that Hamas detain the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Liberation Army gunmen enjoying sanctuary in the Gaza Strip. They are among the targets of the large-scale Egyptian military operation launched Sunday, Aug. 14, against al Qaeda terrorists and lawbreakers ensconced in Sinai.
Jabari was put on notice that failure to meet this demand would result in the Egyptian army destroying the Sinai-Gaza smuggling tunnels, which are Hamas's supply lines for arms and revenues.
Given the acrimony governing Egyptian-Hamas relations, the rosy picture presented of progress in the negotiations for the Israeli soldier's release is far from real.
Neither the German go-between nor the Egyptian and Israeli authorities expected a straight yes from Hamas's military chief to letting his Israeli hostage go after years of foot-dragging. The best they hoped for was microscopic progress and a lead into some real bargaining with the appropriate address.
Jabari alone knows where the young soldier is hidden and he is therefore the key to a solution. But for five years, he has held onto Gilead Shalit as his personal life insurance guarantee against targeted Israeli assassination. This week, he decided to throw off Egypt's demands by passing the hot potato to the Hamas political headquarters in Damascus.
Cairo then asked President Bashar Assad to let Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshaal leave the Syrian capital and travel to Egypt to help move the Shalit negotiations on. Egypt's rulers hoped Meshaal would tell Jaabari to finally let go of Shalit and clinch the deal for the release of 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.
This move could not have happened at a more advantageous moment for the Syrian ruler, debkafile's intelligence sources report, for two reasons:
1. Assad and Meshal have been at odds for many months. The Syrian ruler was not averse to seeing the back of the Palestinian leader – especially now, because Hamas' political headquarters, though enjoying Assad's hospitality for years, has sat on the fence over the Syrian army's crackdown on protest, unlike another terrorist group enjoying his patronage, the actively helpful Lebanese Hizballah.
Letting him travel to Cairo – purportedly to fix the Shalit problem – gave the Syrian ruler a convenient excuse.
2. It also gave Assad the chance to make a pro-Palestinian gesture which he believed would offset the fallout from his massacre of Palestinians now in its fifth day in the Al-Ramal district of Latakia .
Netanyahu never imagined that his new concessions for securing Gilead Shalit's release would be the catalyst for Assad to play the Palestinian card as a sideline of his crackdown on the Syrian uprising.
None of this bodes well for the fate of the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in a cross-border raid in the summer of 2006. He is now a pawn in inter-Arab power games. The impasse in the bargaining for his release is therefore unlikely to be broken – even if Israel bows to every one of Hamas's demands, which aim anyway more at obstructing than achieving results. Therefore, the debate in Israel about how much Israel should concede for bringing this agonizing issue to a close is irrelevant.