October 19, 2011

THE JUBILATION and relief that greeted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as they returned home Tuesday superficially suggested a breakthrough in long-stalled relations between Israelis and Palestinians. The opposite is more likely. On closer inspection, the deal between Hamas and the government of Binyamin Netanyahu looks likely to inject more poison into an already bitter standoff.

Palestinians, including President Mahmoud Abbas, celebrated the returning murderers and would-be suicide bombers as heroes: “You are freedom fighters and holy warriors,” said Mr. Abbas, who is often credited with opposing violence. In Gaza, a newly freed woman who tried and failed to detonate a suicide bomb in an Israeli hospital urged a crowd of schoolchildren to follow her example. In Israel, there was anger over the evidently weak physical condition of Mr. Shalit, who was abducted from Israeli territory by Hamas fighters and held hostage for more than five years.

As if by rote, the Obama administration and European governments expressed the hope that the prisoner exchange would somehow lead to the resumption of the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But the immediate effect of the exchange was to weaken Mr. Abbas — who already was refusing an international invitation to resume talks — while strengthening Hamas, which remains committed to Israel’s destruction. Hamas spokesmen said the deal would inspire more operations to capture Israeli hostages to exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli officials argued that the deal showed Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to make painful compromises with the Palestinians. Yet, while agreeing to release 1,027 Palestinians — many of them convicted of crimes of terrorism — in exchange for one Israeli soldier was surely a tough choice for Mr. Netanyahu, it was also one enthusiastically backed by most of the Israeli press and public. For the moment, there is no such clamor for a deal with Mr. Abbas, much less for further accords with Hamas.

Mr. Netanyahu could broaden the benefit of the prisoner deal by easing the Israeli blockade on Gaza; Hamas’s hold on Mr. Shalit has long been cited by Israelis as a chief obstacle to such a liberalization. That in turn could reduce worrisome tensions between Israel and Turkey and Egypt, and perhaps reduce support in the United Nations for a pending resolution on Palestinian statehood. For his part, Mr. Abbas could quickly reassert his role as Palestinian leader by accepting the invitation of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia to unconditionally resume peace talks with Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, has been making any concession by Mr. Abbas difficult. Last week his government announced plans for a new settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem, even though Mr. Abbas has made a freeze on Israeli settlements a condition for talks. Now Israel has given Hamas an extraordinary prize in exchange for the release of a hostage. For Mr. Abbas to return to peace talks without any such concession — or for Mr. Netanyahu to meet him halfway — would require courage and statesmanship that neither seems able to muster.