Analysis: The painful lessons from the Goldwasser/Regev swap

Israel made several key mistakes in the process leading up to the prisoner exchange.

coffins rosh hanikra 298 (photo credit: IDF)
coffins rosh hanikra 298
(photo credit: IDF)
Operation "Thy Sons Shall Return" came to an end on Wednesday with the arrival of the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing. Well, almost. One of the sons - Gilad Schalit - is still in captivity, and - as Hamas made clear Wednesday - it now intends to increase its demands in the negotiations for his release. While the swap went smoothly, at Rosh Hanikra it was difficult to escape the feeling that while Hizbullah was preparing for festivities upon Samir Kuntar's release, Israel was preparing for funerals, although even until the very last moment - when the two black coffins were unloaded in Naqoura - it was still not clear. As the press converged on the crossing early in the morning, there was a sense of hope that there would be a surprise. In background talks with the press the night before, top officers in the IDF admitted that even hours before the swap was scheduled to take place, the status of the bodies was still "one big unknown." With that in mind, it is difficult to imagine another country that would engage in negotiations with a terror group without receiving definitive information regarding the status of the soldiers being held in captivity. This could be chalked up to flaws in Israel's intelligence-gathering capabilities, even though immediately after the Second Lebanon War the IDF was skeptical of Regev and Goldwasser's chances of surviving the attack on their border patrol on July 12, 2006. According to sources in the IDF's Northern Command, Israel's intelligence on Hizbullah has improved tremendously over the past two years since the war, when Israel's intelligence failed to warn of the kidnapping attack and proved ineffective in toppling Hizbullah's leadership and rocket-firing capability. Despite the improvements, since the war and the appointment of former deputy Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ofer Dekel as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's point man on the prisoner issue, Israel made several key mistakes in the process leading up to Wednesday's swap. Dekel failed to coordinate properly with Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, which might partly explain why the two remained adamantly opposed to the prisoner swap even after the details of the deal had been finalized with Hizbullah via the German mediator and the families had been updated. Dagan and Diskin's opposition caused Olmert to delay his decision on the deal and led the prime minister to hold two separate votes before it was finally approved. Another stage of the process, which is still unclear, is why the IDF began reviewing the possibility of pronouncing the soldiers dead after the deal had been finalized and not a year ago, when such a move would have likely had an impact on the agreement and possibly lowered the price Israel ended up paying. But while the swap with Hizbullah came to a bitter end on Wednesday, Dekel still needs to look forward - this time to the Gaza Strip, where Schalit is being held, alive, by Hamas. Fears in the defense establishment are that Hamas will now increase its demands - from several hundred prisoners to over 1,000 - and ask for the release of terrorists with blood on their hands, like Kuntar. Israel will need to try and end Schalit's captivity as soon as possible, although in this case it will need to be careful not to overpay. Similar fears were what led Yitzhak Rabin to back down from signing a deal in 1987 that might have brought missing navigator Ron Arad back home. This was after the controversial Jibril Deal, under which Israel released over 1,000 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli POWs. With Regev and Goldwasser back home, it is now up to Dekel and Olmert to once again navigate the labyrinth of this delicate issue, ensuring that Schalit does not become another Ron Arad.