Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Israel, Hamas, and German Neutrality


Sometimes soft power comes from being seen as neutral.

In Richard Boudreaux's account of Israel's effort to retrieve a soldier captured by Hamas during the 2006 Gaza war, one item stands out: Both sides see a German as an adequately disinterested party.

Israel wants proof that Gilad Shalit is even alive. Hamas wants the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has made an updated video of Shalit, but Israel doesn't trust that Hamas is providing adequate evidence of Shalit's well-being. Israel needs a way to know that the evidence is good enough without turning over the Palestinian prisoners and without seeing the video, which would generate expectations of a quid pro quo.

It's a classic prisoner's dilemma where Israel can't defect but is extremely reluctant to cooperate.

Here's what happens next:

Israel Radio reported that a German mediator had reviewed the recording in Cairo and would show it to Israeli officials. They would then decide whether it conveys enough information about Shalit's condition to go ahead with the release of the Palestinian prisoners.

It reminds me strongly of Martti Ahtisaari's role in brokering the peace in Northern Ireland. As I recall, Britain wanted proof that the Irish Republican Army's weapons had been destroyed; the IRA wouldn't do that but offered to put them "beyond use," whatever that was supposed to mean. Both sides turned to Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and a man whose word is considered beyond reproach.

Apparently the IRA took Ahtisaari (and a South African counterpart) for blindfolded rides somewhere, and they indeed saw that the IRA's guns were permanently unusable—without ever specifying how. They reported back that the IRA was true its word, which cleared the way for today's largely peaceful Northern Ireland.

The idea that a mediator from Germany—with its Nazi past (however distant) and its troops in Afghanistan (however reluctant)—is acceptable to both Hamas and Israel is an impressive if unheralded part of German soft power. If the parties cannot trust each other, they have at least found a neutral who they can trust.

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