A Deal on Gilad Shalit/ Egypt and the Copts

Oct 12, 2011

Update from AIJAC

Oct. 12, 2011
Number 10/11 #03

As readers are hopefully aware, the big news out of Israel is the approval given overnight by the Israeli cabinet to a deal that will see long-captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit released by Hamas in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners. (The reported details of the deal have been summarised by AIJAC’s own Sharyn Mittelman.) Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s statement on the Egyptian-German mediated agreement is here. AIJAC’s statement on this news is here.

This Update includes some analysis of the timing, history and implications of the Gilad Shalit agreement. 

First up is noted Israeli security reporter Ron Ben Yishai looking at how the deal developed and why it came to pass now, after more than five years of stuttering negotiations. He notes that Israeli officials believe that there is currently a “window of opportunity” for an agreement because Egypt was able to be a mediator and looking to win some brownie points; Syria, under pressure, was prepared to urge Hamas to deal, and PA President Abbas, riding high in public opinion thanks to his UN efforts, is less vulnerable to Hamas opposition than he has been in the recent past. He also has some interesting details about the actors on both the Israeli and Hamas side who made the agreement possible. For Ben Yishai’s knowledgeable insights into the making of this agreement, CLICK HERE. Another good analysis of the timing for the agreement comes from Yaakov Katz of the Jerusalem Post.

Next up, noted Israeli columnist Ari Shavit of Haaretz tackles the great debate in Israel about the security risks created by releasing large numbers of terrorists and other prisoners for individuals like Shalit, with all the security risks that such releases create for the Israeli public at large. Shavit acknowledges the huge downside to such agreements, yet notes that something seems to trump all this with the Israeli public – Israeli solidarity, the “sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel toward one another” which he calls Israel’s “main asset in human and security terms.” He goes on to describe the importance of this intangible sense to Israelis, as well as offer some different and more pessimistic views on the timing of the deal compared to those explicated by Ben Yishai. For Shavit’s full argument, CLICK HERE. A good summary of the arguments about the costs of these ransoms comes from an essay by veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon last year – while some more current, opposing views on the subject come from Max Boot and Jonathan Toben. Meanwhile, Jewish ethicist Rabbi Joshua Hammerman offers his take on this difficult dilemma here.

Finally, we offer some excellent insights into the deteriorating situation in Egypt – with dozens from the Coptic Christian minority killed, in part by security forces, over the weekend (an excellent news report on what actually happened is here and more on the implications comes from this blog post by AIJAC’s Sharyn Mittelman. ) – from Washington Institute Egypt expert Eric Trager. As Trager makes clear, the behaviour of the interim SCAF military government in this incident was egregious – involving not only military vehicles running down unarmed protestors, but even more worryingly media incitement against Christians, and efforts to pre-emptively close down media outlets which would not report the government line on the violence. As Trager makes very clear, this was not a single incident but part of very worrying larger trends in Egyptian politics – including a military determined to maintain a major political role, but doing so in increasing alliance with Islamist extremists. For the rest of Trager’s astute analysis, CLICK HERE. Some additional very good analysis of Egypt’s deteriorating political prospects comes from Barry Rubin and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal.

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Anatomy of a deal

Shalit swap analysis: At the end of the day, Israel capitulated, Hamas showed flexibility

Ron Ben Yishai

Ynet.com,  Oct. 12, 2011
The military impasse, the stands taken by the Shin Bet and the Mossad, Hamas elasticizing its stance, the Arab Spring and the Palestinian bid in the UN – all of these contributed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to present the cabinet with the current Shalit deal, which would bring about the release of about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Several architects can take credit for the decision: First and foremost new Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen, followed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Benny Gantz and Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo.

Hamas’ architects include Ahmed Jabari, head of its military wing, who was given the go-ahead by Politburo Chief Khaled Mashaal. On Egypt’s part, the credit goes to Egyptian Intelligence Minister Murad Muwafi and German mediator Gerhard Konrad.
‘Prisoner exchange deal only option’

Gantz and Cohen declared recently that they were unable to offer the government a viable plan that would enable Israel to extract Shalit successfully. The two reviewed the case upon taking office and both had come to the same conclusion – a prisoner exchange deal was the only way to ensure Shalit’s release.
Barak reviewed the recommendations and in turn recommended that Netanyahu follow the creed cemented by former PM Yitzhak Rabin: If Israel cannot retrieve captives via a military operation then they must be retrieved via a prisoner exchange – regardless of how difficult it may be.

The defense minister played a key role in convincing Netanyahu to accept the deal – and this time both Shin Bet and Mossad chiefs endorsed it. Sources privy to the matter said that Cohen promised the prime minister that his organization would be able to monitor the “heavyweight” prisoners who would be allowed to return to the West Bank, and prevent them from “falling off the wagon.”

Green light from jailed leaders

At this time, the actual details of the deal are still unknown, but it is clear that it will follow an outline set several years ago: About 1,000 prisoners will be released in two stages. The first stage, to be executed within a week, will see Israel transfer 450 prisoners to Egypt. Hamas had demanded their release, but they have cross-group affiliation and include many who were sentenced to life sentences. Upon the completion of this stage, Shalit would be transferred to Egypt and then returned to Israel. Two months from now, an additional 550 prisoners would be released, according to a list prepared by Israel.

The names of the prisoners included in the deal have yet to be published, but it seems Hamas had to elasticize its stance considerably. Until the very last moment Hamas adamantly refused to yield its objection to the expulsion of many prisoners from the West Bank. Now, Hamas agreed to the expulsion of 203 prisoners. It also had to forfeit its demand for the release of heavyweight arch-terrorists like Marwan Barghouti, Abdullah Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat.

Hamas in Gaza had an interest for a while now in securing a deal given the pressure and frustration of prisoner families. However, the head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari, insisted on zero compromises. The group’s Political Bureau Chief, Khaled Mashaal, supported him.

However, in the meanwhile conditions changed: Iran recently curbed its financial support to Hamas and the group needs Arab and international donations in order to reinforce its hold on Gaza. Moreover, Hamas monitored with concern the boost in Abbas’ status and needed a propaganda achievement that would overshadow the Palestinian president’s accomplishments.
The prisoner leadership in Israel jails recently gave Jabari the green light to secure a deal as he sees fit. Mashaal and Jabari apparently reached the conclusion that they exhausted the negotiations with Israel and received the most they could get.

The negotiations lasted for five years and four months. Some would argue that a similar agreement could have been secured a year or two ago, yet this is doubtful. While the agreement constitutes painful Israeli capitulation and would grant terror group Hamas a prestigious, unprecedented achievement that would boost its status, Israel apparently managed to secure some of its demands. Moreover, the stubborn negotiations it conducted will have a deterrent effect.

Window of opportunity

The state of affairs in the Arab world also affected Netanyahu’s decision. The prime minister realized that German mediator Konrad did as much as he could, and that the fate of the talks was in the hands of Egypt’s military rulers. Israeli officials were gravely concerned that this regime could lose its ability to serve as mediator within a few months and come under the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence. Moreover, Egypt’s supreme military council also needed an achievement in the global and Arab theater.

Another factor was the situation on the Syrian front. Bashar Assad’s regime endorsed the deal in order to improve its global status. The Syrians exerted their influence on Hamas’ leadership in Damascus to show a little flexibility. Israeli officials feared that this Syrian influence, as feeble as it may be, would also dissipate should the Syrian president be toppled.

This is the “window of opportunity” officials in Jerusalem spoke of. This window could have been closed given further upheaval in the Arab world.

The change in the status of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas as of late also played a role. In the past, Washington expressed its concern that a Shalit deal would boost Hamas’ stature on the Palestinian street, thereby jeopardizing Abbas’ position and Fatah’s rule in the West Bank. Israeli officials shared this concern.

Yet in the wake of his UN bid, Abbas’ position was greatly boosted and there is no fear that his stature would take a grave blow as result of the agreement. Netanyahu may have also had an interest in “making Abbas sweat” in response to the Palestinian leader’s conduct on the international stage.

Hamas also had an interest in showing flexibility. The ground in Syria is shifting beneath the group’s political leadership’s feet in Damascus and it seeks a new base. This leadership now needs an entry ticket into moderate Arab states, headed by Egypt, Jordan and Qatar.
Will terror reemerge?

What remains is the substantive fear that the arch-terrorists to be released would restore Hamas’ West Bank infrastructure. Such move could prompt, not far from today, casualties among Israelis – especially should another Intifada break out.
This fear, which is premised on solid reasons, will now force the Shin Bet and IDF to significantly boost its ant-terror operations and security deployment in Judea and Samaria while requiring great manpower and additional resources. Moreover, Israel will have to toughen its security demands in the framework of talks with Abbas, while he too will have to further toughen his stance.

Abbas will also be forced to decide whether to cooperate with Israel in monitoring the arch-terrorists and their aides, at a time when he’s trying to promote reconciliation with Hamas and prepare for elections. We can only hope that these fears will be proven false and that Israeli society did not stretch the principle of mutual responsibility beyond reasonable limits.

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Gilad Shalit exchange deal is a victory for old-fashioned Israeli solidarity

By Ari Shavit

  Oct. 12, 2011

Israel’s main asset in human and security terms is the sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel toward one another.

There are many very good reasons to oppose the deal for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. They include the fact that the deal is a surrender by Israel to terror; that it will spur Hamas on and weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It will empower extremists in the Arab world and in Palestine. It will increase the risk of Israeli soldiers being kidnapped in the not-too-distant future. It will increase the danger that a wave of terror will rock Israel.

The deal will strengthen the feeling that sensitivity to human life is Israel’s Achilles’ heel. The deal will renew the image of Israel as a power encumbered by cobwebs. The deal that saves the life of Gilad Shalit could cost the lives of many Israelis whose names and faces we do not yet know.

And yet, there is one decisive reason to support the deal: Israeli solidarity.

Israel’s main asset in human and security terms is the sense of mutual responsibility that its citizens and soldiers feel toward one another.

Without this feeling, there is no meaning to our lives here. Without this feeling, we have neither army, security nor the ability to protect ourselves. Rightly or not, Shalit has become a symbol of mutual responsibility. And therefore his upcoming release will not only be the redemption of a captive and the saving of the life and the return home of a son. Shalit’s release will be the realization of Israeli solidarity.

It is unclear what exactly prompted the prime minister and the defense minister to do what they did over they past few weeks regarding Shalit. This exorbitant price could have been paid a year or two years ago. The red lines could have been crossed right after the government came into office.

Apparently Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were prompted to act determinedly at this specific time by motives that are not especially gladdening.

The two apparently realized that there will be no diplomatic, economic or social breakthrough here in the coming year. They understood that security could decline in the year to come. They recognized that they are under strategic, political and public siege, and the Shalit front is the only one in which they can chalk up an achievement and engender any kind of hope. And so Netanyahu and Barak stormed the Shalit front, giving it everything they had. Right or not, justified or not, these two former officers of the elite reconnaissance unit conquered their target.

In the coming weeks, Israel will be enveloped in euphoria. The thrilling pictures broadcast from Shalit’s home community of Mitzpeh Hila will push out the threatening pictures from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. People will feel that with Shalit’s return, we have returned to ourselves. Older people will weep, younger people will celebrate, the social protest will be forgotten.

And yet, the world around us will see things differently. Even our allies will find it difficult to understand us. Sooner or later, Shalit’s pictures will be replaced by pictures of others, and so only in a few years will we be able to know who was right at yesterday’s cabinet meeting and who was wrong. Only with time will we know what the proper balance was between what was correct and what was dangerous in the deal to release Shalit.

But until history has its say, we can all rejoice. We will rejoice with Gilad’s parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, and with his grandfather, Zvi. We will rejoice with Gilad, the heartbreaking boy Gilad, the son that became a son to all of us, and who is finally returning home.

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Action by Egypt’s Military Rulers against Copts Endangers Transition

By Eric Trager

PolicyWatch #1858
October 11, 2011

The use of violence by Egypt’s military rulers against Coptic protestors undermines the rulers’ international legitimacy and damages their domestic viability.

On October 9, in the worst instance of violence since the February overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, 25 Egyptians were killed and more than 320 injured in street fighting between Coptic demonstrators and Egyptian soldiers. Some casualties were caused by shooting, others when demonstrators were run over by armored personnel carriers.

These events offered a chilling reminder of the upsurge in attacks targeting Egypt’s Coptic Christian community — which constitutes roughly 10 percent of population — both before and in the months following Mubarak’s ouster. On January 1, for example, twenty-three people were killed and ninety-seven injured in an attack on a church in Alexandria. Subsequent incidents have included the burning of a church in Helwan in early March; the burning of three Coptic churches in Imbaba on May 7, during which fifteen people were killed and more than two hundred injured; and an attack by hundreds of Salafists on a church in al-Minya on June 24, which included the attempted murder of the local Coptic patriarch.

These incidents, coupled with the expected success of Islamists in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, have unnerved Egypt’s Copts. In turn, since the beginning of March, Coptic activists have protested periodically outside downtown Cairo’s state media building, known as Maspero, demanding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the interim military ruling body, rebuild Coptic churches, bring the attackers to justice, and provide better security for Coptic communities. On October 5, in response to a September 30 arson attack on St. George’s Church in Aswan, Coptic activists staged another sit-in in front of Maspero but were forcibly removed by military police and Central Security Forces. As videos of violence against the demonstrators spread on the Internet, outraged Coptic activists countered by planning an October 9 march from northern Cairo to Maspero.

The October 9 march reportedly drew some 10,000 demonstrators and featured anti-SCAF chants. On reaching downtown, marchers were pelted with rocks hurled by SCAF-associated thugs, and — on approaching Maspero — attacked with clubs. For the uniformed authorities’ part, they at first responded to the procession by firing into the air, but soon afterward this restraint was punctured by two armored personnel carriers barreling into the marchers, with soldiers atop each vehicle firing into the crowds, a maneuver that accounted for most of the day’s casualties. As word of the attack spread across social networks, youth activists rushed to the scene to protect the Coptic demonstrators.

Manipulating the Media

Following this bloody crackdown, Egyptian authorities moved swiftly to tilt media coverage in their favor. Osama Haikal, the minister of information, advised the state-run media to cover the clashes “wisely”; Egyptian television responded by reporting that Coptic protestors were attacking the military with stones, Molotov cocktails, and live ammunition. When several employees of state-run television used Twitter to denounce their networks’ coverage of the clashes, Haikal announced that a trial would be set for anyone who “spreads rumors.” The state-run press also reported that three soldiers had been killed when, in fact, no military deaths whatsoever had occurred.

Meanwhile, the SCAF moved to close down independent media outlets. Soldiers stormed the studios of the U.S.-funded Alhurra satellite station and the privately owned Channel 25, severing the two stations’ live coverage of the clashes. According to reports, plainclothes figures also tried to break in to the studio of the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya, prompting a cut in its coverage.

Most alarmingly, the Egyptian government used the state-run media to instigate further violence against the Coptic demonstrators, calling on Egyptian citizens to fill the streets to protect the soldiers. Islamist demonstrators responded by chanting, “Islamiya! Islamiya!” Other pro-military demonstrators stood alongside security forces, reportedly calling, “The people want the fall of the Christians.” Adding to the tumult, thugs attacked Christian-owned businesses throughout downtown Cairo, as well as the Coptic hospital where many of the victims were being treated, before the military began enforcing a 2 a.m. curfew.

Even before the October 9 events, the SCAF had repeatedly used the need to restore order as a pretext for expanding its autocratic rule. On August 1, the military arrested 115 activists when clearing a monthlong Tahrir Square sit-in; on September 9, following the attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo, it expanded the nation’s controversial emergency law; and the military has continually used the rise in street crime since the January revolt as an excuse to try civilians before military tribunals. But the latest anti-Coptic violence represents the first instance of unmistakable involvement by the SCAF.

SCAF’s Critics and Cronies

Although al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, Egypt Freedom Party leader Amr Hamzawy, Social Democratic Party figure Mohamed Abul Ghar, and a representative of Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Association for Change have compared the SCAF, unfavorably, to the Mubarak regime, many key political players have sided with the military. Leading presidential candidate Amr Moussa, for instance, reportedly stressed the importance of “ruling with an iron fist in order to protect the country from looming chaos.”

Moussa’a pro-SCAF stance has been echoed resoundingly by Islamist leaders. Former Muslim Brotherhood leader and current presidential candidate Abdel Monem Abouel-Fetouh cited the clashes as advancing “foreign and Zionist aims.” Another Islamist presidential candidate, Selim al-Awa, blamed foreigners for the attacks, claiming the United States was seeking a pretext to intervene militarily in Egypt to protect Christian houses of worship.

Such reactions by Islamists suggest they remain firmly aligned with the SCAF, even despite recent disagreements regarding the timing of elections and the drafting of supraconstitutional principles. While distrust between Islamists and the military undoubtedly remains, the Islamists continue to view the SCAF — and the limited stability that it provides — as their best means for achieving maximal influence in post-Mubarak Egypt. Liberal and leftist leaders, by contrast, increasingly view the SCAF as the primary cause of the country’s political uncertainty and continuing instability.

U.S. Policy Options toward a More Assertive SCAF

Recent actions by the SCAF suggest an intent to play a dominant role in Egypt’s political future. Such a goal is likely motivated, at least in part, by the fear that a political transition toward a more democratic system would jeopardize the group’s many privileges. As a result, the SCAF is increasingly willing to use any means it deems necessary for quelling dissent, including inciting sectarian violence for political gain.

Today, while the SCAF is the only player capable of maintaining a modicum of stability in Egypt, the current trajectory does not suggest the kind of stability with which Washington will be comfortable for very long. Equally troubling is the SCAF’s apparently durable alliance with Egypt’s Islamist parties.

In Egypt, the Coptic Church is calling for a three-day fast to express its displeasure, a tack many Copts are denouncing as insufficient. Meanwhile, Egypt’s youthful activists have suggested that they will use the funerals of those killed during the October 9 fighting to launch new demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s interim government. The sentiment suggests that the violence — against Copts and other protestors — is likely to escalate.

The Obama administration has already issued a public statement conveying its “deep concern” about the violence. Given, however, that the violence risks sparking yet another round of demonstrations targeting the SCAF’s authority, the administration statement — which called for “restraint,” but did not even mention that the excessive violence was perpetrated by the military — could have and should have been much tougher.

The influence of American policymakers on their current “best” ally — the SCAF — appears to be diminishing. The violence perpetrated by the military is a disservice to the Egyptian people and undermines the chances for democratic transition in Egypt. Now is the time, both publicly and privately, to articulate to Egypt’s military leadership what is at stake. The US-Egyptian partnership can endure a revolution, and populist politics, and anti-American rhetoric. But it will not likely endure government-sponsored pogroms against Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Eric Trager, The Washington Institute’s Ira Weiner fellow, is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is writing his dissertation on Egyptian opposition parties.



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