A prisoner swap in Israel

The exchange of some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one kidnapped Israeli soldier is a victory for humanitarianism in a region too often characterized by brutality. The decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make the deal goes against every one of his impulses, which were over-ridden in this case by his political pragmatism. Especially difficult for him to swallow is the boost it gives to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip: It is considerably strengthened by having negotiated the exchange.

Sgt. Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas fighters five years ago. The militants had passed into Israeli territory through an underground tunnel, engaged Israeli soldiers in a firefight and grabbed Mr. Shalit when he was wounded. Reportedly, the seizure was planned: Two Hamas fighters, seized by Israeli forces the day before Mr. Shalit was taken, had said that Hamas was planning to enter Israel via tunnels and kidnap Israeli soldiers stationed nearby. The day after he was seized, Hamas called on Israel to release all Palestinian prisoners under the age of 18 and all women held captive. Israel refused, launching a five-year captivity for Mr. Shalit.

Negotiations for his release continued; at various times, the Vatican, the Russian government and the Egyptian government served as intermediaries, all to no avail. Obstacles included the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released, which prisoners would be set free, and where they would be released. Reportedly a deal was struck earlier in October that would release Mr. Shalit in exchange for an eventual 1,047 Palestinian prisoners. On Oct. 18, Mr. Shalit was set free and Israel released the first 447 of its Palestinian prisoners. The remaining 550 will be set free in December.

The thinking behind the deal illustrates the complexities of Middle Eastern politics. Mr. Netanyahu is a hardliner who abhors the idea of being seen as soft on national security issues. Had another Israeli prime minister authorized the release of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were serving life sentences for killing Israeli citizens, Mr. Netanyahu would have been the loudest of those denouncing the move for encouraging terrorism. Indeed, critics charge that the swap will encourage more kidnappings to win the release of the more than 4,000 Palestinians who remain in Israeli prisons.

But the deal itself enjoyed overwhelming support in Israel, with 79 percent of those polled saying they backed the exchange. In a country with compulsory service, the government must be seen as doing everything possible to protect its soldiers. That impulse is strengthened by recent developments in Israel. Mr. Netanyahu had a difficult summer, fighting protests over his management of the economy. Mr. Shalit’s release is a much welcomed boost to his popularity.

Mr. Netanyahu has other reasons to embrace the deal. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has captured international attention in recent months with his bid to press for statehood for his people at the United Nations. That prospect is anathema for Mr. Netanyahu, who wants statehood for Palestine to follow from negotiations with him, not the unilateral declaration by Palestinians that is then accepted by the international community; in peace talks, he retains a virtual veto over the terms of any such arrangement. Thus, the exchange, while troubling, detracts attention from Mr. Abbas and strengthens his arch-rival Hamas.

Israel may hope to split the Palestinian leadership, but that is a dangerous tactic. While Mr. Abbas is the more recent problem for Mr. Netanyahu, the president and his Fatah faction have shown themselves more willing to make a deal with Israel.

Hamas has proven to be a more intractable and wily foe. Anything that boosts Hamas’ popularity could ultimately shift the balance of power between the two Palestinian competitors. There is also fear that the swap boosts Hamas’ “logic of resistance,” or armed struggle, which is a stark contrast to Fatah’s readiness to cooperate with Israel.

For all these reasons, Mr. Abbas has shown pique at Mr. Netanyahu’s decision and is pressing him to follow up on an offer by his predecessor to release yet more prisoners; ostensibly so that he can get the credit.

Egypt is another beneficiary of this deal. The military government there has been under fire in recent weeks following the unrest in that country and the growing suspicion that it will not hand over power to the people as promised after former President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office. The Cairo government helped broker the deal between Hamas and Israel, a reminder of the key role it plays in Middle Eastern politics.

Not to be forgotten in this recitation of Middle East strategy is the freedom won for Mr. Shalit. He spent more than five years in detention. His family was sent regular reminders that he was alive; that was reassuring but it was also a sophisticated form of torture. His release is a joy for his family and their supporters — as is the release of the Palestinian prisoners. Hopefully, the release of Mr. Shalit and the Palestinian prisoners will spur both sides to reinvigorated negotiations to address the real source of the problem — the bitter unhappy relationship between Israelis and Palestinians revolving around the latter’s struggle to claim their own state.