- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

TEL AVIV | Moves toward a prisoner swap for long-held Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit advanced Monday, unsettling an already complicated Middle East picture and raising the prospect of a public relations coup for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ archrival, Hamas.

Though officials on both sides cautioned against misplaced optimism, expectations surged Monday as exiled Hamas leaders flew from Damascus to Egypt to discuss a deal.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment.

The proposed swap, in which Sgt. Shalit would be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinians, including popular activist Marwan Barghouti, could be expected to boost the sagging prestige of Hamas, which has been hurt by Israel’s yearlong economic siege of Gaza.

“No doubt [a swap] will give credit to Hamas and increase its popularity,” said Said Zeedani, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “The reputation of the Palestinian Authority isn’t going to be enhanced. They have not been a party to this.”

A deal could improve prospects that Israel will ease its economic blockade on Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, which has prevented reconstruction after a brief war between Israel and Hamas nearly a year ago.

It also could create popular pressure for Mr. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority to accept a power-sharing deal with Hamas. Because the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist group, this could set back U.S. efforts to restart negotiations on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Israeli President Shimon Peres confirmed on Sunday that there had been progress in the talks, but Sgt. Shalit’s father, Noam Shalit, later told reporters it was too early to celebrate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Monday that reports of a prisoner swap in the foreign press have been “intentionally distorted.”

Sgt. Shalit was abducted in a cross-border raid in June 2006 and taken to Gaza.

He has been held captive through Hamas’ June 2007 takeover of the coastal strip and Israel’s invasion of Gaza in January.

Ever since Sgt. Shalit’s capture, Egyptian and later German negotiators have mediated indirect talks between Israel and Hamas.

Several months ago, in a sign of good will, Hamas released a video of Sgt. Shalit in return for the release of a handful of prisoners. On Monday, Hamas officials told relatives of Palestinian prisoners that they would soon be reunited with their loved ones.

“Hamas wants to prove that it is relevant politically and capable,” said Nader Said, a Ramallah-based pollster. “Israel is giving it that relevance, while at the same time weakening the [Palestinian Authority].”

Though its 29-month rule over the Gaza Strip remains unchallenged, Hamas needs to boost its image domestically ahead of a Palestinian election slated for sometime in 2010.

According to a poll by Mr. Said earlier this month, when Palestinians were asked which party they would receive their vote in the next election, support for Hamas dipped to 27 percent from 30 percent in March.

Asked about a two-way race between the Palestinian Authority’s Mr. Abbas and Hamas leader-in-exile Khalid Mashaal, support for Hamas plunged from 43 percent in March to below 30 percent in November.

The Palestinian Authority has had difficulties of its own. Frustrated by the lack of progress in U.S.-backed peace talks, Mr. Abbas recently announced that he would not seek re-election.

The Obama administration has failed to meet Palestinian expectations that the U.S. could press Israel to freeze construction in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel’s continued refusal to do so has further undermined Mr. Abbas’ standing among Palestinians.

Both analysts warned that Hamas’ popularity dividend from a prisoner swap would be temporary if it doesn’t bring about an improvement in the lives of Gazans.

“There will be celebrations, but the impact of the swap will be short-lived,” said Mr. Said, the pollster, “but politically speaking and in the long run, Palestinians are interested in basic issues that go beyond symbolism.”

• Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.

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