US awkwardly welcomes Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap

AP News
Posted: Oct 18, 2011 4:32 PM
US awkwardly welcomes Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap

The United States awkwardly welcomed Tuesday's release of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit after five years of captivity by Hamas, voicing concerns over some of the Palestinians freed in return and declining to say whether the prisoner swap between Israel and the Islamic militant group could help moribund Mideast peace talks in any way.

On a trip to Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. was pleased that Schalit's ordeal was over, saying "he was held for far too long in captivity." But Clinton and other U.S. officials avoided specifically addressing Hamas' part in the agreement or the merit of Israel's decision to free more than 1,000 Palestinians to secure Schalit's release.

"I don't think it's for us to necessarily say whether it's a good or bad agreement," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters. Asked about the deal with Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Toner conceded that "if you're parsing what this means for the peace process, it's difficult for us to say."

Thousands of people jammed the streets in Schalit's hometown in northern Israel to celebrate his homecoming, after he had been reunited with his parents and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An equally boisterous reception awaited the first group of Palestinians transferred under the deal from Israeli prisons to the West Bank and Gaza, where massive celebratory rallies festooned with green Hamas flags were held.

But U.S. reaction was muted for a number of reasons. The deal reflected a complicated agreement after negotiations between the Jewish state and Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization and has tried to isolate internationally since the Iran-backed militant group took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

At a time when the U.S.-backed peace process is foundering, the massively disproportional exchange Hamas leaders were able to press on Israel is likely to strengthen their movement at the expense of President Mahmoud Abbas' American-backed government in the West Bank.

That is problematic for the United States because of Hamas' long opposition to a peaceful, two-state settlement with Israel. The prisoner swap occurred only a day after the U.S. and other Mideast mediators acknowledged they wouldn't be able to revive direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of this weekend, the latest in a string of setbacks that has seen no direct talks between the parties in more than a year.

Toner urged both sides to build a "constructive atmosphere" for peace negotiations, but said he was referring only to Israel and Abbas' government, not Hamas. While Israel may win some credit with the Obama administration for its willingness to compromise, Toner said Hamas' part in the deal wouldn't lead the U.S. to reassess its blanket ban on contacts with the organization.

"We have the three red lines about Hamas," Toner said, "that they renounce violence, that they accept existing agreements and that they recognize Israel's right to exist. And if they could meet those requirements, then we certainly would welcome them as part of the political process."

He said that while the prisoner exchange was an independent Israeli decision, the U.S. communicated its concerns about a number of the Palestinian prisoners who were released despite records for violent attacks on U.S. citizens.

"As a matter of principle, the U.S. opposes the release of individuals who have been convicted of crimes against Americans," Toner said.

Four hundred seventy-seven Palestinian prisoners were freed Tuesday, of 1,027 to be released under the agreement. Many of them were serving life sentences for deadly attacks on Israelis.