My part in the prisoner exchange deal

How a ‘Jerusalem Post’ columnist played a key role in back-channel negotiations for the release of Gilad Schalit.

Gershon Baskin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gershon Baskin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit is home! Three days after Gilad was abducted in an attack inside Israel, on sovereign Israeli territory, I was contacted by a Professor “M.,” a professor of economics from a Gaza university, a member of Hamas whom I had met six months before at a conference in Cairo.
He was the first person from Hamas I had ever met, and I was the first Israeli he ever spoke to. We spent more than six hours in dialogue during that conference. For me, it was like a time warp – his words sounded like conversations I had with PLO people 25 years ago.
In 1976, I met the PLO ambassador to the UN. I wanted to convince him to recognize Israel and support the two states for two peoples solution to the conflict. The PLO Ambassador responded: Over my dead body. Jews in Israel must go back from where they came and Palestine must exist from the River to the Sea.
I supported the Quartet conditions for talking to Hamas after the Palestinian elections of January 2006. I believe that official contacts between Israel and other governments and Hamas should stand on the three principles adopted that Hamas must recognize Israel, it must adhere to previous international agreements (meaning Oslo) and it must denounce terrorism and violence. I think it is completely reasonable that these demands were made and that they were steadfastly adhered to.
With regards to civil society, from which I come, there is a completely different set of rules. I have always guided my talks with Arabs over the past 30 years by two principles: I don’t enter into arguments about my (national) right to exist, for me there is no question about it; and I am willing to talk to anyone who is willing to talk to me.
When Professor M. approached me to speak with him in Cairo in December 2005, I gladly accepted.
When three days after the abduction of Gilad Schalit Prof. M. called me and said: “Gershon, we are being bombed, we have no electricity, no water and our lives are in constant danger, we have to do something,” I gladly accepted the challenge to try to do something that would bring Schalit home and end the reason for the Israeli attack in Gaza.
Prof. M. immediately went to the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and within half an hour the director of his office called me and told me that someone had been appointed to be a liaison from Haniyeh’s office to me.
One hour later, Dr. Ghazi Hamad, who was then the spokesman of the Hamas government, called me. Since that day Hamad and I have been in constant contact trying to work out the deal that will bring Gilad back to his family. The first thing that I did was speak to Noam Schalit to see if he was willing to speak to someone from Hamas.
Of course we responded affirmatively, he would speak to anyone who could tell him about his son and how to get him back.
Later that first day, Hamad spoke with Noam and assured him that Gilad was alive and well. There was absolutely no reason for Noam to believe him, and no reason why Hamad’s message should calm him.
Nonetheless, I would like to believe that at least hearing that Gilad was alive was somewhat reassuring.
I asked Ghazi, “What do you want to release Gilad?” He came back to me with three demands: An immediate cease-fire, open the passages to Gaza and 1,500 prisoners released.
OK, now what do I do? I have to get this information to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. I knew that if I just called his office, or sent a fax, it would never reach him. So I decided to contact his daughter Dana and ask if she would help to pass messages.
She immediately agreed, although she cautioned: “I know my father’s positions and I don’t think he will listen.”
Prime minister’s Olmert’s responses were quick and as Dana said, expected: We don’t negotiate with terrorists and we don’t believe them regarding a cease-fire.
I suggested that we need to break down the resistance to an agreement and the most important thing is to bring a sign of life. Olmert insisted that there was no need because the intelligence information confirmed that Gilad was alive.
“We hold Hamas fully responsible for his welfare,” the prime minister said.
Nonetheless, I was determined to bring a sign of life, because it was necessary, it would prove that my channel through Ghazi Hamad led to those who are holding Gilad and it could open a channel through which we could negotiate his release.
Hamad told me that Hamas was willing to send a video of Gilad but wanted 350 women and minor prisoners in exchange. I transmitted that message to the prime minister through Dana.
Olmert responded: We don’t negotiate with terrorists and we don’t pay for information.
By this time, war was raging on two fronts, in Lebanon with two kidnapped soldiers there and a military operation going on in Gaza. On the military front, operations to try and locate the soldiers in Lebanon and in Gaza produced no results. I believed that if there is no military option to bring Gilad home, we must prepare a “diplomatic” track for negotiations.
I WENT to Ramallah, to the Mukata headquarters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. I was told to sit with one of his top advisers. We called Ghazi Hamad and in two hours we managed to bring down the Hamas demand for a video to one busload – about 50 women and minor prisoners – and Hamas agreed that the bus would be delivered to Ramallah for Abbas to receive. Olmert once again rejected the idea.
It is now the beginning of August 2006 and Ghazi and I have been trying to push forward the idea of a cease-fire. The war in Lebanon took away attention from Gaza and from Schalit. On August 3, I wrote to Ghazi: “If you want to get international attention back on the Palestinian issue, the easiest way is to show a sign of life from the soldier. Let’s work for a cease-fire and a prisoner release. Let’s show some sign of life from Gilad Schalit.”
On August 16, I went to Gaza to meet Ghazi and other Hamas leaders.
While I was there Ghazi gave me a paper with the Hamas demands formally written – general as they were, it was the first piece of paper with those demands. By this time, Olmert had appointed Ofer Dekel, a former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) senior official, to be the pointman on the abducted soldiers.
I sent the Hamas paper to Dekel.
He told me to find out who wrote the document, did it come from the people who were holding Schalit, does it reflect the opinion of his captors and if Ghazi could send me the original document in Arabic. This was the first official and direct contact made between the representative of the government of Israel and me. It encouraged me to believe that we could make real progress. When I was in Gaza, I proposed to Ghazi that Hamas forward a handwritten letter from Gilad as a sign of life, without receiving anything in return, and that this would help to open the official track.
On August 17, 2006, Ghazi Hamad responded as follows: “I can confirm that this document represents the official positions of the people who are keeping the soldier and they agree to every word in it.
The original document was written in Arabic and then translated to English. Regarding the letter or video tape, I am still waiting and I hope to have a positive response.
With my warm wishes, Ghazi.”
FOR THE next 10 days, I spoke to Ghazi several times a day pushing for a letter. I then sent off a fax to a senior Hamas man in Damascus who I was told was in charge of the “file” – Dr. Musa Abu Marzouk.
I wrote: “I am writing to you on behalf of the family of the abducted soldier... We must find a way to negotiate and to end this issue and for the soldier to be returned to his family...
In order to establish a channel for communication for his release, we must establish that there is someone to speak with who can deliver... It is therefore urgent that we receive a handwritten letter from the soldier.
We need proof that the people we are speaking with can deliver....”
After I sent a similar and stronger letter to Khaled Mashaal, a person in London close to the Hamas leadership sent me an e-mail in which he wrote: “I’ve been told that the soldier is well and that your people know that for a fact. The problem is not the nonexistence of a channel for negotiations, but the lack of seriousness of the Israeli government to engage in indirect negotiations to bring about an exchange of prisoners.
“Two things need to be done: (1) An Israeli signal that they are willing to resolve the problems through negotiating the exchange of prisoners; (2) Commissioning a single mediator or ‘mediating body’ to act on behalf of the Israelis with a clear mandate.”
On September 3, 2006, I wrote back to Mashaal saying that I received confirmation from Olmert’s office that Israel is willing to negotiate and that Ofer Dekel went to speak to the Egyptians.
Ghazi Hamad told me that there was an agreement to deliver a letter and that it would be sent to the Egyptian representatives in Gaza.
But no letter arrived. I taught Hamad the Hebrew word “nudnik” and told him that I would not give him rest until the letter arrived. Several years later, while trying to end a period of escalation and when Hamas wanted a cease-fire, he said to me, “Now I will be the nudnik!” I then asked Noam to write a letter, father to father, to Khaled Mashaal.
Noam wrote a beautiful letter with quotes from the Koran.
On September 7, I sent the letter to Mashaal. On Saturday morning, September 9, at 11 a.m., Hamad called me and told me that the letter from Gilad was just delivered to the Egyptians in Gaza. I called Noam and informed him. I then called Dekel.
Dekel thanked me for my role and told me that it was time for me to back out.
“The Egyptians are in charge and we don’t want another channel,” he said. “We don’t want more initiative.
I can continue to channel information to him, but only that.”
The next day I met with the representative of Egyptian intelligence, Gen. Nader el-Aaser, who told me, “Gershon, don’t stop, we need an independent channel that can act behind the scenes.”
The following week, I delivered a handwritten Rosh Hashana letter from Aviva and Noam Schalit to Gilad through Ghazi Hamad. I don’t know if he ever received it, but I believe he did.
I continued my behind-thescenes attempts to get things moving.
In December 2006, Hamad proposed that we try to open a secret, direct channel for negotiations.
I called Dekel, but Olmert rejected the idea. I continued to contact other Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and traveled to Gaza two more time before I was no longer allowed to after the Hamas takeover in June 2007.
FOR MOST of the next year the Israeli side waited for Hamas to submit lists of prisoners whom they wanted released. I failed to understand why Israel did not take the initiative and put its own proposal on the table. I also failed to understand why Hamas was not moving forward with putting forward its own demands. Hamad was constantly providing me with information from his side on what was happening and mostly on what was not happening.
Our contacts remained frequent and even if we had no “negotiations” to conduct, we were learning more about each other and developing a relationship based on mutual trust.
On January 30, 2007, I sent the following note to Khaled Mashaal: “The Palestinian tragedy continues, now you and your people from Hamas are battling Fatah and their people... I once again want to stress that it is time to complete the deal for the release of Schalit. Enough! It is time to complete the prisoner exchange. I have offered in the past and I am once again offering to be a mediator in this deal in order to complete it. It seems to me that the Egyptians in Gaza are now too busy negotiating between Hamas and Fatah to focus on the prisoner exchange. Don’t you want to complete this deal already?” April 1: “Dear Mr. Mashaal. Tomorrow evening begins Passover – our holiday of freedom. It sure would have been nice to give the Schalit family some news about their son. It sure would have been nice to give several hundred Palestinian families news of freedom for their sons too.
Why can’t this deal be finished?” June 20 (after the Hamas takeover of Gaza): “Dear Ghazi. I hope that you and your family are well on a personal level. Your people have gotten yourselves into a big mess. I understand that Hamas did not intend for this to be the results of what happened, but when you play with fire you never know what will burn.
“Politically I think that the people of Gaza are in for a very long and hard period. I also think that Hamas will be increasingly isolated in the world and that the lives of Hamas politicians will become more and more difficult.
“I also fear for the future of Gilad Schalit and I wonder if the Egyptians are going to continue to mediate the prisoner exchange. In light of the changes, I am willing to step in once again and together with you, perhaps we can achieve some results.
“It would be very nice to hear something from Gilad. This week marks one year since his abduction and his family has gone through more than enough (so has Gilad).
“There are also thousands of prisoners waiting for this exchange to happen – so let’s see once again if it is possible to move something forward.”
On June 24, 2007, Hamas released an audio tape of Gilad.
July 9: After suggesting to Olmert, through his office, that Israel put up a list of 1,000 prisoners it is willing to release, I wrote to Mashaal: “The negotiations are once again deadlocked.
Too many players involved and no progress to report. Last week Dr. Ahmed Yousef had suggested to me a proposal for breaking the deadlock: that Israel submit a list of 1,000 names of prisoners for Hamas to chose from according to the agreed number. I transmitted that message to Olmert.
Dekel went to Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman, saying that Israel was ready to submit a list of names. Suleiman reported back to Dekel that Hamas refuses to receive a list of names from Israel. Hamad tells me that it is true that Hamas will not accept a list of names from Israel. He insists that after Israel rejected 90 percent of the Hamas list, there must be an agreement on the criteria for prisoners.
I explained to him that there is limit to the number of prisoners “with blood on their hands” that Olmert has the political ability to release. I suggested to Hamad that Hamas “propose a list of categories and numbers – e.g. 50 women, 50 minors, 10 veterans in prison more than 15 years, etc.
and then put up a new list according to those categories... I have always advocated direct back-channel negotiations – not through the Egyptians – but direct.
“I know that Hamas has an interest in bringing the Egyptians back in, but everything goes slower with the Egyptians and it makes concluding a deal much more difficult. Hamas also has an interest in ending the Schalit affair as soon as possible...”
THIS KIND of correspondence went on and on. I have more than 500 pages of documentation from June 2006 until today. Three times this channel of mine to Ghazi Hamad was used to bring about cease-fires during periods of acute escalation, including before and after the war in Gaza. Most recently in August 2011, after the terrorist attack near Eilat, this channel was directly behind the reaching of a cease-fire that enabled a return to formal negotiations for the release of Gilad.
I will jump forward to the last six months. In mid-April, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed David Meidan to be the new pointman to lead to the release of Schalit.
I called Pini Meidan, a former Mossad man and a foreign policy adviser to prime minister Ehud Barak during the time that I was a member of a Jerusalem-experts team that Barak formed before the January 2001 talks in Taba.
Pini said that he was no relation to David but he would gladly make the introductions between us. I also approached Minister Michael Eitan with whom I have close connections.
Pini called me back with David’s telephone number and his agreement to speak to me. I immediately called. He said that it would take about three weeks for him to enter the job and that we should be in contact in May.
I immediately renewed my contacts with Ghazi Hamad, now beginning to take place with increasing frequency. I also contacted Gen.
Nader al-Aaser who was back in Cairo and would later play a key role in the negotiations. I also began sending to David Meidan messages and information from Ghazi and me via SMS.
David said that he was being approached by people and countries from all over the world who wanted to help. Having years of experience in the Mossad enlisting agents and working with them, he had the keen ability to discern when a source could be serious.
I began transferring messages from Ghazi regarding renewing the process. The information coming from Ghazi was coming directly from Hamas strongman Ahmed Jaabri, head of the Izzadin Kassam military wing, and people who were holding Gilad and in charge of the negotiations. This was new and serious.
In the past, during the backand– forth negotiations with the German mediator in Cairo and elsewhere, it usually took days and even weeks to get messages back and forth to Jaabri, and now they were coming within an hour and even several times a day. The information was checked through other sources by the Shin Bet and verified as real.
David Meidan understood that this was real and had real potential.
For me, the first turning point after years of trying to produce an agreement that would bring Gilad home was when David, I think it was in our first face-to-face meeting, told me that Netanyahu told him: “You know me, I am in principle against this deal. I oppose negotiating with terrorists and I am completely opposed to releasing terrorists from prison. But we have no other way to bring Gilad home and it’s time to bring him back.”
This is what convinced David to accept the job, and it is what convinced me that we were going to succeed.
I told David in the meeting, failure is not an option. We are going to bring Gilad home.
All of the Hamas people I have spoken with over the past five years said to me, “We are ready to negotiate.”
I often asked Ghazi Hamad to explain to me what that means. I said, so far what I see is that you want Israel to give in to all of your demands. On what exactly is Hamas willing to compromise? Ghazi and others always said to me, “When we see that Israel is willing to be flexible, so will we then be flexible.”
The first important messages that I delivered to Ghazi and from him to Jaabri was that there is a new man in town and he is supporting our direct channel. Ghazi then received Jaabri’s support and encouragement to work though this channel. I kept telling Ghazi that the moment of truth had arrived.
Netanyahu wants an agreement, Meidan has the authority and says that once we agree on the principles, in three long, hard days of negotiations we can reach an agreement.
This was clearly something new.
During the next months we worked intensively. When I spoke to Gen.
Nader el-Aaser and informed him that our channel was working directly with Meidan, Netanyahu and Yoram Cohen, the head of the Shin Bet, had personally been informed and had given the green light, Aaser was not surprised at all.
In fact, when I told him that I was speaking to Ghazi every day, he laughed and said, “Gershon, you are speaking with Ghazi at least five times a day – this is an open channel and we are all listening!” I would start my mornings before I left home with an Internet chat with Ghazi, more SMS’s during the day, phone calls back and forth. With every phone call I reported to David Meidan; sometimes he asked me to write it and send it to him, by fax or by SMS. We worked on a series of issues, sign of life, mechanism for the talks.
I requested permission to go to Gaza to meet Ghazi face to face. I was denied. I tried to convince Ghazi to come to Israel. David agreed, but Jaabri did not. We talked about meeting in a third country. In the end Jaabri decided, together with the leadership, that it had to be in Cairo and that the Egyptians had to conduct the negotiations. Ghazi and I went to work on producing a document of principles for negotiations. It went through three generations with the major breakthrough coming on July 14, 2011.
David told me get them to write a document that would have in its title “finality, last demands to close a deal, etc.”
The second-generation document included the names of the worst of the terrorists with the most Jewish blood on their hands. David Meidan refused to accept the document and told me to get Ghazi to understand that if Hamas insisted on those names not only would there not be an agreement, there would be no negotiations.
The most difficult phone call I had with Ghazi in five years took place, lasting more than 20 minutes. I told him over and over that Jaabri had to understand that we are at the moment when an agreement could be reached. He had to understand that no Israeli prime minister would ever release five of the names that were on the document. Israel will not negotiate about it. If they wanted an agreement now was the time, but they had to be more realistic.
The July 14 document was the breakthrough. Hamas titled it “Final demands to closing the deal.” They removed the five names. They accepted that the number of arch-terrorists released would be significantly reduced and that Israel would select them. They agreed that a majority of them would be deported abroad for very long periods. David Meidan presented the document to the prime minister and was given a green light to close the deal.
On the way to closure, there was a terrorist attack near Eilat and an immediate escalation of violence.
Through Ghazi, who was in constant contact through Jaabri and Haniyeh to all of the Gazan factions and though me with David to Benny Gantz, the chief of staff, while I was also SMSing Michael Eitan for Netanyahu, Yoram Cohen directly, and Yoni Coren, the chief of staff for Defense Minister Barak. Then I started SMSing UN special envoy Robert Serry through his staff to work out the details and times for a cease-fire so that we could get the Schalit negotiations back on track.
There were more ups and downs, including a trip to Cairo for me to meet with Gen. Aaser and his partner in the negotiations; there I proposed that the Egyptians put on the table the complete final agreement including names.
I was in Cairo the night of September 9, when the Israeli Embassy was attacked, quite an experience in its own right. We also talked about the need for the Egyptians to apply real pressure on Jaabri through the Hamas leadership, who we knew wanted to complete the deal. But we also knew that Jaabri often balks and backtracks at critical moments.
The end of the story is well known and there are lots of lessons to be learned and I will continue to write about those in the future. This deal happened because Netanyahu made the decision that it was time. Everyone, including myself, would have preferred if Gilad could have been rescued in a brilliant Entebbe-like military operation. That would have been the best. But it was not possible and once Netanyahu made his decision, I knew that we could reach an agreement.
David Meidan was a brilliant strategist and his team members “A” from Military Intelligence and “Y” from the Shin Bet were great, knowledgeable, open and dedicated negotiators.
Gen. Nader el-Aaser, with his appreciation for Israel and his keen knowledge of the Palestinians and especially of Hamas, was a brilliant negotiator.
Ghazi Hamad from Hamas was truly happy when the deal was reached. His happiness was not only because he helped to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons.
He was truly happy that Gilad Schalit was being let free and reunited with his family. Ghazi and I differ on almost all political issues. We don’t differ on the importance of trust between rival parties in negotiations, and we share the same values of humanity, compassion and hope for peace. I hope that Ghazi and I will continue to remain in contact but from now on, work together to bring real peace to our two peoples.
The writer is the founder and co-director of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, hosts a weekly radio show in Hebrew on All for Peace radio, and is a voluntary columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
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