By Crispian Balmer
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Palestinians and Israelis celebrating at the same time is a rare occurrence. Their simultaneous elation on Tuesday over a mass prisoner swap is raising a faint glimmer of hope for progress in ending the Middle East conflict.
Veteran analysts greet any such optimism with a roll of the eyes. Inured to years of peace-making failure, few if any think it can translate into immediate gains elsewhere.
Yet the deal may have the potential to loosen the state of siege that separates the two sides.
In Gaza, where funerals are the usual result of exchanges with Israel, thousands poured into the streets to welcome home the first of 1,027 detainees being released as part of the swap which was agreed by Israel and Hamas, and mediated by Egypt.
Across the border, Israelis were elated as a gaunt Sergeant Gilad Shalit emerged from more than five years of captivity in Gaza, with the vast majority supporting the lopsided accord that secured his freedom.
"If people see beyond the immediate spectacle of the deal and look at the pragmatism involved on both sides, then this is definitely a cause for hope," said Uri Dromi, a spokesman for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"At some point, Hamas and the government sat in the same building. Maybe they did not meet face-to-face, but through mediators they agreed to something," he added.
Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an ultra-nationalist Jew, who opposed any negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is convinced Israel would have secured peace with all its neighbors, had Rabin lived. As it is, the country remains largely isolated in an increasingly turbulent region.
The prisoner swap is a rare case of a seemingly intractable Middle East problem actually being resolved.
World leaders voiced hope that the exchange would lead to better times, happy to endorse the deal made by Islamist Hamas, which most Western nations have branded a terrorist movement because of its refusal to renounce violence or recognize Israel.
"This release ... will have a far-reaching positive impact on the stalled Middle East peace process," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Reuters on Tuesday.
That might prove wishful thinking.
The Palestinian Territories are split geographically and ideologically, with Gaza run by Hamas and the occupied West Bank run by President Mahmoud Abbas, who wants peace with Israel.
While Hamas rejects all official overtures to the Jewish state, Abbas has led Palestinian negotiating efforts for years.
Talks with Israel broke down 13 months ago after Israel refused to bow to Abbas's demand for a halt to all Jewish settlement building on land Palestinians want for their state, land seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.
Abbas is now pushing for recognition of statehood at the United Nations, a unilateral move opposed by Israel and its main ally, the United States. He is unlikely to back down, especially with Hamas seemingly strengthened by the swap accord.
Hamas has also shown no indication of looking to change its rejectionist attitude to Israel. Far from it, with senior leaders crowing that Israel only understands force, while Abbas has nothing much to show for his Western-endorsed moderation.
"This swap is a very specific case, and I don't think there is anything beyond it," said Michael Herzog, an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a one-time head of strategic planning for the Israeli army.
"Most Israelis favor a two state solution, but the same majority is also skeptical of whether this can happen. I think you have a mirror image of this on the Palestinian side."
An opinion poll published last month by the Yediot Ahronot newspaper showed 66 percent of Israelis did not believe a peace accord could ever be reached with the Palestinians. It was one of the highest such readings ever recorded, the pollsters said.
Some 67 percent of those questioned also said they thought Netanyahu did not believe in the chances of peace. His many critics allege he has no intention of ever concluding a broad treaty, despite his often-repeated calls for talks.
But if the Shalit deal has showed one thing, it is that Netanyahu will bend if he has to. Before taking office, he had always rejected such swaps, saying they encouraged terrorism. Once in power, he made the necessary concessions.
Although the Shalit trade had near unanimous political support, it is impossible to imagine such backing for any wider talks with Hamas until the Islamist group recognizes Israel.
Prominent left wing writer Gideon Levy accused his fellow citizens of hypocrisy, urging them to consider why the Palestinian group had captured Shalit in the first place.
"Why is it permissible to negotiate with Hamas over the fate of a single soldier yet prohibited to do so over the fate of two bleeding peoples?" he wrote in Haaretz newspaper on Sunday.
Although any such talks would be impossible in the present climate, it is conceivable that Israel will decide in the days ahead to ease its partial blockade of Gaza, which was significantly tightened in response to the Shalit abduction.
The successful conclusion of the Shalit talks should also provide important lessons, with new contacts established and utter secrecy maintained throughout, said David Newman, a professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion university.
"In an era when there is little real optimism about the possibility of meaningful conflict resolution ... the negotiations between Israel and Hamas that led to the Gilad Shalit deal can be instructive for the future of the peace process," he wrote in Tuesday's Jerusalem Post.
(editing by Janet McBride)
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