Security and Defense: Prisoner to his policies?

Barak returned from a visit to Egypt this week empty-handed, but as determined as ever to withstand pressure from the Shin Bet over Hamas's prisoner exchange demands.

The last time an Israeli official was invited to the Ras al-Teen presidential palace in Alexandria was in 2001. It was the beginning of the second intifada, and President Hosni Mubarak had summoned then-defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was begged to scale down IDF operations in the territories. On Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew to Mubarak's seaside palace, although this time it was he who was making the pleas - for Egypt to exert more pressure on Hamas to reduce its demands and renew negotiations for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Barak had hoped to return from Alexandria with the news of renewed negotiations as a type of conciliatory birthday present for Schalit - who turned 22 on Thursday. Instead, he walked away from his meetings with Mubarak and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman with the reinforced assessment that Hamas will not reduce its new demands, increased after Israel last month released murderous terrorist Samir Kuntar, four Hizbullah fighters and 200 dead combatants for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. For this reason, defense officials predicted this week, the government will likely have no choice but to release close to 500 Palestinian prisoners, many of them with blood on their hands, in exchange for Schalit. This is also why Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Barak decided on Wednesday to speed up the work of a ministerial committee that has been established to ease the criteria for which prisoners can be released, even when they have blood on their hands. The committee is led by Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon and includes ministers Avi Dichter, Daniel Friedmann and Ami Ayalon. Their job will be to redefine the meaning of the term "blood on their hands" to the point that Olmert will be able to win cabinet approval for a massive - and controversial - prisoner swap with Hamas. This technical work, however, is just one obstacle on the path to Schalit's release, which officials said is being held up mainly due to Hamas's refusal to sit down with Egyptian mediators and renew negotiations, which were supposed to start immediately following the swap with Hizbullah. This did not happen. And, as is the case with almost anything having to do with Gaza these days, not everyone in the defense establishment agrees with the committee's work. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is opposed to increased flexibility on the prisoner criteria. Its opposition is not new. Prior to the swap with Hizbullah, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin - together with Mossad director Meir Dagan - voiced opposition to the release of Kuntar. According to some defense officials, their opposition was not merely based on professional considerations, but also on a personal vendetta against former deputy Shin Bet chief Ofer Dekel, whom Olmert appointed in 2006 to run all of the prisoner negotiations. The intelligence chiefs were said to be upset that they were not given the prestigious and sensitive post. Even if this is partly true, the reasons given for the opposition were that Kuntar's release would strengthen Hizbullah, encourage additional kidnappings and impede the Schalit negotiations - something about which they turned out to be right. Dagan also said that Kuntar - who killed two members of the Haran family and a policeman in Nahariya in 1979 - should only be released in exchange for missing IAF navigator Ron Arad. In the Schalit case, the Shin Bet's opposition is based on similar concerns - that the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners will bolster Hamas and pave the way to the next kidnapping of a soldier. This doesn't mean that Diskin is not willing to pay for Schalit's release. The argument is over the price. BARAK AND Olmert are willing to overlook the Shin Bet opposition for the time being. Firstly, there is immense public pressure to secure Schalit's release after more than two years and three birthdays in captivity. But this is also an election season, and politicians sometimes want to win points wherever they can, even if it means overlooking the price. Schalit is not the only issue highlighting the daylight between the Shin Bet and the Defense Ministry when it comes to Gaza. Another issue has to do with Egyptian efforts to stop weapons smuggling from the Sinai. At his meeting with Mubarak, Barak thanked the Egyptian president for increasing his efforts to stop the smuggling. In recent weeks, there have been several reports of Egyptian policemen uncovering tunnels and seizing weaponry and explosives on their way to Gaza. Egypt has also recently started using American-made tunnel detection systems to improve its results. Last Thursday, as an example, Egyptian authorities revealed that policemen had found half-a-ton of explosives near Rafah. Officials in Barak's office this week hailed the cease-fire in Gaza and the increased Egyptian efforts as a major diplomatic achievement, one that Barak was instrumental in obtaining. The Shin Bet, however, sees Egypt's role and the cease-fire differently. When the truce went into effect, Olmert appointed Diskin as its referee, basically the security official who would evaluate whether Hamas was keeping its part of the agreement by stopping its military buildup. Diskin recently told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that despite the truce, arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza has continued, and more than four tons of explosives, 50 anti-tank missiles and dozens of light arms had been brought in by Hamas. Defense officials said that the Shin Bet has not noticed an improvement in Egyptian anti-smuggling efforts or a drop in the quantity of weaponry and explosives. "There has not been any real drastic change in the smuggling," a senior security official said. "The Egyptians are basically working the same way today as they did before the cease-fire went into effect." The explanation for the discrepancy in the statements made by Barak and the Shin Bet is not necessarily connected to an argument over the facts, but rather the way the reality is understood. As the one who pushed the government in June to approve the cease-fire deal with Hamas, Barak's political future depends on its not turning into a complete flop. As defense minister, he also needs to take diplomatic relations with Egypt into consideration. Complimenting Cairo's efforts helps create warm relations - not something that can be taken for granted. The Shin Bet, on the other hand, sees the situation through a security prism - what is happening on the ground, the Hamas military buildup and the extent of the weapons smuggling. There is no argument that Hamas is amassing weapons and fortifying its positions in Gaza ahead of a potential clash with Israel, which many in the defense establishment believe is inevitable. But in an election season, as one government official said this week, sometimes politicians are willing to turn a blind eye.