Personally, I am very moved by the tribulations of Gilad Shalit, and I was moved to tears when I learned of the deal for his release. If he actually walks free after five years in a Hamas dungeon in Gaza, I shall genuinely rejoice. But the backstory to this is both obvious and complex. Here's a slice:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs the Shalit deal both as a duty to the family of every Israeli soldier (true at any time), and for his own political goals. But it comes at a cost, and not only in releasing Palestinian terrorists and other prisoners -- Netanyahu's political ATM is settlement construction, and the value has increased as President Obama has made it more of a sticking point.
Immediately following last spring's Itamar massacre came the announcement of new housing for Israelis over the Green Line. Now, as Israel prepares to release 1,000-plus prisoners in exchange for five-year hostage Gilad Shalit, Netanyahu's government just happens to announce plans for yet another entirely new "Jerusalem" (West Bank) neighborhood overshadowing Bethlehem. I've blogged previously about the magical expansion of Jerusalem's borders.
If the Shalit deal strikes a raw emotional chord for Israelis, it also helps undermine Mahmoud Abbas, which is one goal Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas have in common, and Abbas -- despite being either a terrorist or a traitor -- has eclipsed both sides as a statesman (OK, so maybe it's a low bar). Either way, Gilad's release also comes at the cost of freeing hundreds of bonafide terrorists, among them the perpetrators of barbaric, wrenching attacks on Israelis. The timing of the Givat Hamatos decision is a blunt offset to any feeling that the prisoner swap represents weakness on Netanyahu's part. (For Hamas, this is a chance to show that its terrorist tactics do more to cow Israel than all of Abbas' diplomatic overtures.)
Since Abbas is the successor to the late Yasir Arafat, it's almost fitting -- and a bit disconcerting -- that boosting Hamas to undermine Fatah (and its leadership) remains an Israeli tradition. The historical record is divided over whether Hamas was first established with Israel's active collusion or was merely allowed to develop when Israel looked the other way.
Aside from the liabilities in cutting any deal with a terrorist faction for the release of hardened criminals, the cumulative wounds of Gilad's continued captivity were a daily thorn in Israel's national psyche, which isn't good for any Prime Minister.
Even the current heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet are consigned to the release of so many unrepentant terrorists, which is a big shift from their predecessors who rejected the idea barely two years ago. This may just be a sign of Netanyahu's W-esque coopting of the security establishment for his political goals, or it may reflect a new reality in which the situation is so bad, a few hundred more murderers on the other side of the line legitimately won't make a big difference.
To sum up, here's a short list of Netanyahu's gains:
1. Gilad goes free.
2. Abbas gets undercut.
3. Netanyahu's right-wing base gets a brand-new neighborhood over the Green Line.
4. The withered peace prospects are again forgotten because of... all of the above.