Is another Palestinian prisoner swap in the offing, or just a long way off?

Despite reconciliations and promises to try to facilitate talks with Hamas on three missing Israelis and the remains of two dead soldiers, a prisoner swap isn’t likely any time soon.

By
July 31, 2016 19:21
Avera Mengistu‏

Protesters call for the release of Israeli missing in Gaza Avera Mengistu‏. (photo credit: FACEBOOK PAGE CALLING FOR RELEASE OF AVERA MENGISTU‏)

 
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THE RECONCILIATION agreement signed between Israel and Turkey in late June has already produced one important result. Prior to the failed military coup on July 15-16, Israel asked Turkey to use its influence and initiate talks with Hamas to release three Israelis and the bodies of two soldiers held by the Islamist movement in Gaza.

The three Israelis – considered by their families to be mentally ill – crossed into Gaza on various occasions over the last year and a half. In the latest incident, which took place during the first week of July, Jumaa Ibrahim Abu-Ghanima, a Beduin from the unrecognized Beduin village of Hasham Zana in the Negev, jumped the border fence near Khan Yunis in Gaza.

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The bodies being held are those of Lt. Hadar Goldin and St.-Sgt. Oron Shaul, who were killed in action during the last Gaza war in the summer of 2014.

Avraham ‘Abera’ Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin, went missing in September 2014, while Hisham al-Sayed, also a Negev Beduin, crossed into Gaza in April 2015.

A letter attached to the reconciliation agreement signed by a top Turkish official contains a non-binding promise to “help” Israel in its efforts to release its citizens and to bring the bodies home for burial. Israel is now testing just how willing Turkish leaders ‒ known for their good relations with Hamas chairman Khaled Mashaal ‒ are to help.

However, unconfirmed reports from Gaza suggest that Mashaal, who resides in comfortable conditions in the Gulf emirate of Qatar and has been at the helm for nearly 20 years, will step down by the end of the year. If this happens, and it is a big if, he most probably will be replaced by Ismail Haniyeh, the de-facto leader of Hamas in Gaza.



In that case, Haniyeh will be succeeded by Yahya Sanwar, now the “defense minister” of the organization, who is in charge of coordinating all security-related Hamas forces – policy, the domestic security force and the military wing Izzadin Kassam.

Sanwar, 54, was released from an Israeli jail in 2011 in the swap known as the “Schalit deal” during which Israel released 1,027 Palestinian terrorists in exchange for just one soldier, Gilad Schalit. From his prison cell, Sanwar actually opposed the deal thinking it was not good enough to meet Hamas interests.

He was among the founders of the military wing and one of its top commanders in 1987-8. Two years later, he was arrested by Israeli security forces and sentenced to life in prison for murdering collaborators with Israel and spent 22 years in prison where, with his strong personality and charisma, he became the undisputed leader of the Hamas inmates. Upon his release, he was welcomed in Gaza by hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters and spoke about his comrades in arms left behind bars.

The emergence of Sanwar, who opposes almost any deal with Israel, as Hamas’s strongman is a bad omen for any hope to secure a quick prisoner swap in the current situation.

The responsibility to conduct direct and indirect talks with Hamas lies with Col. Lior Lotan. The former junior officer in one of Israel’s Special Forces units formerly headed the Military Intelligence unit responsible for “prisoners and soldiers missing in action.” In that capacity, he shared responsibility for what is considered one of the most outrageous prisoner swaps in Israeli history when, in 2004, Israel released nearly 435 Palestinians and other terrorists for the bodies of three IDF soldiers and Elhanan Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel, who was lured into a drug deal in Dubai and was kidnapped by Hezbollah operatives. But this is not the only stain on Lotan.

Two years ago he was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his “Coordinator for Missing in Action and Prisoner swaps.” Shortly thereafter, he went to meet with the family of Abera Mengistu.

The meeting was secretly recorded by Mengistu’s family members, who charged that Lotan was arrogant and patronizing toward them because of their low socioeconomic status. A few days after the recordings were leaked, calls were made for Lotan to be fired and he apologized.

But Lotan’s main problem in his efforts to advance a deal is his lack of international connections. His predecessors in the position were well-connected to Middle Eastern and Western European security services, which used their leverage to press Hamas to negotiate.

The lack of levers to reach out and have access to Hamas is a major obstacle.

In past deals with Hamas, the German foreign security service (BND) and, even more so, Egyptian intelligence played a major role in bridging gaps between the Islamist movement of Gaza and Israel and facilitating the Schalit deal.

Since then, however, much water has flowed under the bridges of the Nile. Since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi in a coup in 2013, relations between Hamas and Egypt have soured and remain extremely tense. Egypt perceives Hamas – a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood ‒ as an enemy that collaborates with the “Sinai District” of ISIS.

In that sense, Egypt sees eye to eye with Israel.

The Sisi government has put Gaza under siege, and, since the last war between Hamas and Israel in the summer of 2014, rarely opens border crossings with the Strip. Egyptian intelligence and the military closely cooperate with their Israeli counterparts, sharing information and, according to recent foreign reports, allowing Israeli drones to strike ISIS strongholds in the Sinai Peninsula.

Due to the close cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo, Hamas doesn’t trust Egypt and no longer sees it as an honest broker. Nevertheless, Netanyahu in his recent meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry raised the issue of the missing Israelis and the remains of the soldiers held by Hamas, and asked Egypt to assist in opening a secret negotiation channel between the two sides.

The BND can help to a certain degree because the Merkel government is committed to join forces with Turkey and finance several infrastructure projects in Gaza, such as water desalination and electricity.

However, Lotan’s best hope is Turkey. And here he will need Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad. Cohen was involved in the secret negotiations that led to the reconciliation agreement with Turkey ‒ first when he served since 2013 as head of the National Security Council and special adviser to Netanyahu, and since January 2013 as head of Israel’s foreign espionage agency.

Cohen, with his charming personality, has managed to enchant his tough Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan, head of MIT, the national intelligence agency. Fidan is considered ardently anti-Israel and pro- Iran; in 2013, The Washington Post revealed that Fidan had betrayed a network of Iranians who were Mossad agents. Even with all the importance of the Cohen- Fidan relationship, it is clear that Mossad- MIT relations will never return to the intimacy that existed 20 years ago.

According to foreign reports, in the late 1990s and early 2000s Israel received information on Iraq, Syria and Iran gathered by Turkish listening posts. In return, Turkey asked Israel to supply information on its Kurdish enemies and dissidents.

But even if MIT goes out of its way to facilitate talks with Hamas, the chances for a breakthrough are very slim.

Sanwar has already set preconditions, demanding that before talks begin, Israel release 50 Palestinian terrorists who were released during the Schalit deal and then rearrested two years ago by the Shin Bet - after Hamas members kidnapped and killed three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank, the event that eventually triggered the 2014 war in Gaza.

This time, the Israeli government is not ready to cave in to Hamas’s demands. The public atmosphere in Israel is different than five years ago before the Schalit deal, and the chance that a deal of the same scale will be repeated is very low. Not to mention that the three captured Israelis crossed into Gaza of their own accord.

In the government, security establishment and the public at large, there is a growing sense that Israel should act according to the guidelines of the Shamgar Committee. Meir Shamgar is a former president of the Supreme Court, who in 2008 was appointed by the cabinet to design a government policy on how to conduct negotiations with terrorist groups. Shamgar’s findings were submitted to the cabinet in 2012, one year after Schalit was released.

Though the recommendations were never published and the cabinet has not officially adopted them, leaks suggest that the committee talks about “measured” policy. It recommends differentiating between soldiers and civilians, certainly civilians who were not abducted or ambushed but rather decided to cross enemy lines. It also recommends that Israel confine itself to exchanging bodies for bodies and to releasing only a limited number of terrorists for Israeli military personal.

Against this backdrop, it seems a prisoner swap with Hamas remains a long way off.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www. israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.

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