There were two important statements from the Middle East today involving prisoners. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced today that Israel would cease allowing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails access to academic study. The move came on the same day that the International Committee of the Red Cross called on Hamas to give proof that Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit is still alive after nearly five years in captivity. The two statements are likely unrelated given the generally poor relationship between Israel and the ICRC. However, they come at a time of increased chatter about a potential deal to free Cpl. Shalit, and indicate that negotiations have reached a critical juncture.
Jean-Pierre Schaerer, head of the ICRC delegation in Israel, said that the ICRC would be willing to facilitate a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel. The move is likely intended to place the ICRC as a relevant actor in any potential deal involving Cpl. Shalit. The organization played a similar role on July 16, 2008 when the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were transferred back to Israel by Hizbullah in exchange for 5 living and 199 deceased Hizbullah fighters. Regardless of the ICRC's self-interest, offering the resources of the (somewhat) neutral organization will likely have a positive effect on negotiations over Cpl. Shalit's release.
As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, the causes and effects are more complicated. Studies indicate that individuals who commit acts of terrorism tend to be more highly educated. Additionally, the protesters in the recent uprisings across the Arab world tend to be educated, unemployed young men. However, from a policy standpoint the Netanyahu government's approach is treating the symptom rather than the cause. Better educating prisoners, and giving them vocational skills in particular, would allow those prisoners who are released to play a more productive role in Palestinian society and pose a lower threat to Israel. This effect would be consistent with Prime Minister Netanyahu's call to improve the Palestinian economy, which he also claimed "is booming" in his address last month to Congress.
The intent of the policy is not to decrease the risk of terrorism, however. More likely, it is an attempt to show toughness in the face of Palestinian demands. Covert negotiations have been ongoing to secure Cpl. Shalit's release. Netanyahu may be at a critical juncture in negotiations where he feels it necessary to demonstrate resolve to the Palestinian leadership. When they don't make concessions, the Netanyahu government tightens the screws. These tough tactics are the hallmark of many Israeli governments. However, they are hardly ever effective since they raise the cost of Palestinian concessions impossibly high. Palestinians will not perceive the change in prisoner's rights as increased pressure but rather as increased injustice. When they harden their line in response, the effect will be the same as it has been since the beginning of the peace process itself.
Netanyahu is under pressure to release Cpl. Shalit but also not to accede to Palestinian demands. Today's announcement might be posturing for concessions in the near future. However, the longer the Prime Minister waits, the more difficult the balancing act of his office will become.