Gilad and Noam Schalit reuniting 311 (R).
Last week the Shamgar Commission, which was established to examine ways to deal
with cases of kidnappings of Israelis, civilians or soldiers, issued its report.
Most of the 100- plus page report is secret, but the parts that were disclosed
discussed the idea of transferring the handling of such cases from the Prime
Minister’s Office to the Ministry of Defense. The report suggested that a
permanent and professional function be established for this purpose that would
have no contact with the family of the victim and would be
The substantive elements of the report have not been made
part of the public record and I have no inside knowledge of the content, but we
can guess that the report deals with the price paid in the past for abducted
Israeli soldiers or prisoners of war and the decision making process at the
governmental level regarding negotiations for their release.
I think that
almost all Israelis would agree that first of all we should avoid situations
where the enemy is successful in abducting one of our soldiers. Secondly, most
people would all agree that if, God forbid, a soldier is abducted, we would
prefer for the soldier to either escape or to be rescued in a military
operation, preferably one that also resulted in the capture of the
The IDF failed to bring Gilad Schalit home with a heroic
military operation. Immediately following the abduction the military
probably knew where Gilad was being held, but deemed it impossible to bring him
home alive. Later, when we had no idea where he was being held, no
military operation could even be considered.
As the person who opened the
negotiations channel between Israel and Hamas I thought that if it was necessary
to negotiate an exchange, it should be done as quickly as possible for as small
a price as possible. Throughout the ordeal, government and military
officials claimed that public talk about the negotiations would drive up the
This proved to be false. The basic price and formula for Schalit’s
release (450 Palestinian prisoners from a Hamas list, and another 550 prisoners
selected by Israel) was set, and agreed, by January 2007, about six months after
the abduction. The public campaign in Israel to bring Schalit home did
not drive up Hamas’ asking price. In fact, the opposite is true: The first set
of demands I received from Hamas a couple of months after the kidnapping was for
1,500 prisoners, an end to the siege of Gaza and a full mutual
WE ALL feel the price we paid for Gilad was high, very high.
Most people around the world were amazed that Israel was willing to release
1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds with Jewish blood on their
hands, for one single Israeli soldier.
One Hamas negotiator, Salah al-
Arouri, who is credited with building the Izzadin Kassam force in the West Bank,
praised the “strength” Israel showed in a prisoner exchange on Israel radio
saying: “To do what Israel did shows the value Israeli society places on human
life. This is a pillar of Israel’s strength – to wage a war to free one man, to
free a thousand prisoners for him, this is the strength of a society and an
In the end Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave the mandate to
his special envoy David Meidan from the Mossad to complete the negotiations that
brought Gilad home. I believe Netanyahu made that decision to make the deal
after he came to the realization that there was no other way to bring the
soldier home. He knew that there was no military option, and he believed that if
he didn’t move now, there was a good chance Gilad might not come home alive. The
regional circumstances also created a window of opportunity which he believed
could close a deal quickly.
These conditions emerged together with an
opportunity provided by me for direct back channel contacts that led directly to
the people holding Gilad and those responsible for making the decision in Hamas.
The public campaign, I believe, had an impact on Netanyahu as well, and should
not be dismissed. I believe that waking every day to the sight of the Schalit
family in front of the prime minister’s residence with the number of days in
captivity in bold numbers had to have had an impact on Netanyahu.
not believe that Netanyahu made the decision because of political
calculations. To the best of my knowledge, Netanyahu made the decision to
negotiate a deal in mid-April, long before the summer protests and six months
before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the UN to declare a
Palestinian state. He made the decision because there was simply no other way to
bring Gilad home alive.
Was the Shamgar Commission report able to
generalize from the specific Schalit case to possible future similar cases? I
don’t know, but I seriously doubt it. Will the “professionals” in the Ministry
of Defense be more professional than Ofer Dekel, Hagai Hadas and David Meidan?
Will they be more immune to public pressure than Netanyahu? Is the Minister of
Defense any less of a political personality than the prime minister? Is the
desire or demand to pay a smaller price going to affect the way that future
abductors of Israeli soldiers relate to the precious asset that they are
holding? Again, I doubt it.
I am afraid that if there is no military
option to rescue a kidnapped soldier, there is no alternative to
negotiations. My main hope is that next time, God forbid, it won’t have
to take five years and four months. All of my direct knowledge and involvement
testifies to the belief that we could have brought Gilad home at least four
years earlier for the exact same price. The question that Shamgar Commission
should really be asking is why did it take so much longer than it should have?
The writer is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and
Information, a columnist for
The Jerusalem Post and a radio host on All for
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