Everything is negotiable

In this excerpt from ‘The Negotiator,’ Gershon Baskin describes some of his behind-the-scenes efforts to secure Gilad Schalit’s release.

Gilad Schalit arrives from captivity 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Gilad Schalit arrives from captivity 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout )
Dead Ends and New Openings.
On February 10, 2009, Israel held elections.
The right-wing bloc triumphed, enabling Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government.
In the final days of his term, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided not to agree to a prisoner exchange, because Hamas insisted on conditions he couldn’t accept. Olmert wouldn’t take the risks involved in the deal, and the security heads seemed to support him.
The Schalits were crushed. They had generated a lot of public pressure on Olmert’s cabinet to bring Gilad home while it still had the chance.
I was convinced that Olmert’s “red lines” for a deal with Hamas would be liberal compared to Netanyahu’s. The new prime minister had always been outspokenly against prisoner exchanges.
He was known around the world for his position that responsible governments should never negotiate with terrorists.
With this in mind, I decided to try one last time to impress upon the Hamas leaders the urgency of moderating their demands before it was too late. In retrospect, my assumptions about Netanyahu were wrong. However, when Netanyahu took over, nobody – including himself – thought he would compromise on this issue. Based on this assessment, I wrote to the Hamas leaders: March 22, 2009 Gentlemen, This is it – the last stretch of reaching an agreement on a prisoner exchange. It can be done, but you cannot get 100 percent. You have forced a very hard deal on Israel, and you can get a lot more than anyone would have thought possible.
I know you’re not afraid of threats from Israel, nor am I the messenger of threats.
But you must be aware that the Netanyahu government will not make the same kind of deal as Olmert. Deals also have a timing of their own, and what is possible today may not be tomorrow. Sometimes it’s wiser to get what you can today.
Everyone says Hamas has a different way of looking at time. I am quite sure that’s true. The families of the prisoners don’t have such a different view of time, though. They want their loved ones home now. They want them out of prison, even if some of them will be sent away from home temporarily.
Regarding Israel’s insistence on deporting 144 prisoners from the list you submitted, I suggest that you consider an arrangement that would be time-limited – a number of years – and not permanent. This might make it easier for Israel to accept.
In case you think you’ll get a better deal from Netanyahu, read what he has to say about prisoner releases in his book A Place under the Sun. In short, Netanyahu was 100 percent opposed to the 1985 “Ahmed Jibril” exchange. People around Netanyahu say he wants the deal to be completed before he takes office, because afterward it will be a lot more difficult to conclude it. You know this as well.
Netanyahu will seek to prove that he isn’t like Olmert. He’ll use the military to make his point. You’re probably saying there’s no difference – you had the war in Gaza under Olmert. True, but don’t underestimate Netanyahu and his political allies. Netanyahu won’t hesitate to resume assassinating Hamas leaders. He’ll have strong backing in his cabinet to do that, and if Schalit is killed as a result, he’ll be considered a shaheed [martyr], and it’ll be easy for Netanyahu to tell the people of Israel that he didn’t give in to terrorism.
So if you want your prisoners released, it is time to be more reasonable and come to a final deal. There is no time left. If you would like to pass messages through me, I am more than willing to relay them. You can also pass on messages to me through Azzam Tamimi in London or through Ahmed Yousef in Gaza.
Gershon Baskin On March 31, Netanyahu took office.
I was very doubtful that any progress would be made, and more convinced than ever that Gilad would not be coming home. I expressed this sentiment to both Israeli and Palestinian friends and leaders.
In the first week of April, Ofer Dekel asked Netanyahu to relieve him of his duties. Dekel had been handpicked by Olmert – a personal friend – but he’d failed to bring Schalit home. The Schalit family had few kind words for Dekel. In an interview I conducted with Noam Schalit after Gilad was released, he complained that Dekel had been very sparing of information. He’d reprimanded the Schalits for their public campaign, claiming it had hardened Hamas’s position. Dekel had also attacked me and my role, complaining to the Schalits that all kinds of “self-appointed mediators” were causing damage. Noam Schalit thought Dekel’s ego had gotten in the way.
Throughout Olmert’s tenure, I felt that the key to Gilad’s release was in the prime minister’s hands. Had he had the political courage to make the deal, Hamas would have made significant compromises. Ghazi Hamad and Azzam Tamimi had repeatedly told me that when the Israeli side was ready to be serious, Hamas would demonstrate significant flexibility. But it just didn’t happen.
I WAS furious that no deal had been completed in the final days of the Olmert administration. I considered it a complete failure of leadership on the prime minister’s part. (I know the Schalit family too was livid that Olmert left office while Gilad remained in Gaza.) Mostly I was afraid Gilad would be forgotten, because Netanyahu would not negotiate with Hamas. I was also angry that Hamas didn’t understand that with some compromise on its part, a deal could have been made with Olmert. I wanted to share my anger, frustration, and even despair with my Hamas contacts.
I even hoped it would prompt a reality check on their side, and perhaps they would become more reasonable in their demands.
With Netanyahu now at the helm, I was very pessimistic. In the end, of course, Netanyahu surprised us all and demonstrated real leadership. He went against his own principles in support of social solidarity, in keeping with Israel’s unwritten covenant to leave no soldier behind. But it took more than two years for that to happen.
During April 2009, I began speaking with people in Netanyahu’s government to assess how the new cabinet would handle the Schalit issue. It was quite clear that Netanyahu would use the image of his right-wing government to try to scare Hamas into being “more realistic.” It was important for me to get the message to Hamas leaders that they were in for tough times. My message was harsh, because I wanted to apply pressure on them from the outset about the new Israeli government.
On May 31, Netanyahu put Hagai Hadas in charge of the negotiations. The Israel Foreign Ministry webpage reported: “Hagai Hadas, 56, has held a variety of positions in the Mossad and is considered an outstanding intelligence and special operations man. He retired from the Mossad in January 2006, after holding a very senior position.”
SHORTLY AFTER his appointment, Hadas contacted Noam Schalit. Hadas said that Gilad Schalit and his family were at the center of affairs and that freeing him was a moral mission of the highest order.
He pledged to do his utmost to unite all relevant bodies, noting, “We have a great obligation to our fighters, and it is in the spirit of this commitment that I intend to act.”
I had never heard of Hadas, but I had to reach him. How do you find a Mossad agent in the 21st century? Facebook! Hadas’s Facebook page didn’t have much information, but it did provide the name of his town. So I dialed Information and asked for the number of Hagai Hadas in Maccabim (a city in the center of the country). Simple.
I called Hadas, introduced myself, told him what I had been doing, and asked to meet him. Hadas informed me that a German mediator was handling all contacts with Hamas and that my involvement was not necessary or desired.
From that day on, I kept trying to convince Hadas to listen to me. He served as the prime minister’s special envoy for releasing Gilad Schalit from June 2009 until he resigned in failure in April 2011. He consistently refused to listen to or meet with me. Like Ofer Dekel before him, he did not recognize that I was handing him a direct line to the people holding Gilad Schalit. I couldn’t understand Hadas’s insistence on not meeting or even talking to me.
The Schalits found Hadas to be a refreshing change from Dekel, however.
He provided them with information.
He initiated contact with them. They felt that under Hadas the end might be in sight.
Hadas worked through Dr. Gerhard Conrad, who had succeeded in negotiations with Hezbollah. Hadas’ first “achievement” was to invent the formula by which Dr. Conrad was the negotiator, but negotiations would take place under Egyptian auspices. Egypt remained the most important country in the Arab world, and although Hamas and the Egyptians had conflicting interests, the continued Egyptian role was essential, however problematic.
I wasn’t sure Egypt was interested in an agreement that would increase Hamas’ popularity around the Arab world. I shared these thoughts more than once with Noam and Aviva.
Noam said that Hadas seemed very serious and more committed than Ofer Dekel.
Hadas gave the Schalits more confidence in the negotiations, and they were encouraged by the high level of German support for Conrad. German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally provided Conrad with the full backing of the German government, including all expenses paid. Conrad flew frequently to Israel, Gaza, and Cairo in a private German jet.
He showed great intensity and commitment.
After Olmert and Dekel, Netanyahu and Hadas brought new hope.
I checked in from time to time with Noam Schalit, Ghazi Hamad, Azzam Tamimi, and others, but there seemed very little I could do. Noam was turned against me and my intervention by Olmert and Dekel, and now by Hadas as well. Whenever I spoke to him and Aviva, I was made to feel that I was intruding, that my information wasn’t serious.
They always told me my Hamas contacts weren’t the decision-makers regarding Gilad; only Jaabri was, and I had no contact with him. When I reminded them about the first letter from Gilad, which had to have come with Jaabri’s agreement, Noam once again told me that Dekel had denied my having anything to do with the letter. He told them the letter was produced through the efforts of the Egyptians.
That was completely false; the Egyptians themselves were surprised when the letter showed up at their office in Gaza that Saturday morning, September 9, 2006. The Schalits also asked if I had contacts with Hamas Foreign Minister Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar. I did not.
DR. CONRAD was in direct contact with al-Zahar, a member of the Hamas Shura Council, the supreme decision-making body of Hamas. He had apparently been appointed by the Hamas leadership, including Jaabri, to head the negotiations for the prisoner exchange.
I remained quite convinced that Netanyahu would not negotiate with Hamas. And then a surprise came. On October 2, 2009, Hamas transferred a videotape of Gilad to Israel. The Schalits were brought to the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv to watch it, and then a decision was made to allow the whole country to view the tape. The Succot holiday was drawing near as Israeli television aired the special broadcast, but despite the late hour people all over the country gathered to see and hear Gilad Schalit. Dressed in an army uniform, he spoke for two minutes, expressing hope that the Netanyahu government would make the deal. It was a moment of great optimism.
I was convinced that Hamas had released the tape because a deal had been made and in a few weeks we would see Gilad back in Israel. Netanyahu even agreed to release 19 women prisoners in exchange for the video – something Olmert had refused to do. Perhaps I had misjudged Netanyahu? But then nothing happened. There was no deal, and Gilad remained somewhere in Gaza. Ghazi Hamad told me Conrad was visiting Gaza frequently.
Hadas told me, always by text message, that everything was in the German mediator’s hands. The media reported that progress was being made. My own sources in the Israeli intelligence community relayed that the German government was investing considerable resources in ensuring Conrad’s success.
I heard from various Palestinian sources that Conrad and al-Zahar had developed a genuine friendship. I viewed that as a good sign. In my experience, there was entirely too little trust between the parties in these negotiations. If al-Zahar trusted the German negotiator, that could only help. Eventually, however, the friendship between al-Zahar and Conrad worked against the deal, because Jaabri grew suspicious of who Conrad was really working for, making Jaabri wary of al-Zahar as well.
Through late October, I was getting reports that the German channel was deadlocked. Conrad had not been seen for weeks at a time. I had no idea what was happening. Hagai Hadas refused to speak to me. Each time I approached him, he responded with, “There is an official track through the Germans – don’t interfere.”
Ghazi believed no negotiations were taking place and the German track had failed. I told him I would see if there might be another suitable mediator acceptable to both sides. Ghazi agreed that it would be useful to investigate other possibilities of moving forward. He added that if the Russians would step in, they could be quite effective.
It turned out that something was indeed moving. In November, Conrad gave the parties a draft agreement. Jaabri rejected it, and so did Israel. Conrad returned a month later with a new draft.
This time Jaabri broke ranks with al-Zahar.
The Hamas leadership in Damascus supported the agreement, as did al-Zahar. Hamas and the foreign media reported that Jaabri had fired al-Zahar from the negotiations and instructed him not to interfere. Then Jaabri told Conrad not to come back. The Israeli reaction was that there was an agreement on the table, and now we would wait for Hamas to respond to it.
Two months later, I met with a senior intelligence officer in the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv. I did so after speaking with Noam, who confirmed that the German track seemed dormant. Israel’s official position was that we were waiting for Hamas to respond to the German proposal. This would remain the official position from December 2009 until May 2011 – almost a year and a half.
January 31, 2010
Dear Ghazi,
I spoke twice yesterday with the intelligence chief at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv. He has already spoken with his superiors in Moscow. If the Russians express an interest and a willingness to step in as mediator, I will try to get the green light from Netanyahu.
If Netanyahu agrees, my proposal will be for the Israeli and Palestinian delegations to make a commitment to go to Moscow, remaining there as long as it takes to reach an agreement. The two parties could be put up in nearby safe houses, with the Russian mediator shuttling between them. There should be a commitment from both sides to bring this issue to a conclusion and not drag it out for more time. I would like to propose that you and I be included in the delegations as people who can bridge gaps and work to reach agreements.
Gershon The Russian intelligence officer visited Moscow and presented the idea of a Russian track. He came back with the same answer I had received from the Norwegians and the Turks: They would be happy to assist if both parties formally request their involvement, and if they are the only negotiators working on the case.
I contacted Hadas, who responded like a broken record: “There is an official track of negotiations through the German mediator.” I knew Conrad had essentially finished his role and that Israel was waiting for Hamas to respond to the German proposal. I wrote to Netanyahu and to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, informing them that the Russians would be willing to step in and assist. They replied that my letter had been referred to the person responsible for dealing with this issue – meaning Hadas. Dead end.
Five long months later, my good friend Mohammed Najib, Middle East correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly, went to Damascus to interview Khaled Mashal. He said he would gladly deliver any message I had for Mashal.
Najib returned to Jerusalem on June 26 and told me that when he’d tried to hand my letter to Mashal, the latter had raised his hands and said he wouldn’t touch it. He was probably thinking it contained some deadly chemical material.
(More than a decade before, the Mossad had almost killed Mashal on a busy Amman street using a toxic chemical.
The Mossad agents were apprehended by the Jordanian police, and Israel was forced to provide the antidote that saved Mashal’s life.) Mashal agreed to have Najib read the letter out loud, however.
June 6, 2010
Dear Mr. Mashal,
I am writing to you once again about Gilad Schalit and the prisoner exchange. Ever since Hamas abducted Schalit, as you know, I have been trying to secure his release. Too much time has passed without any progress.
It is time to make the deal. Too many people are suffering – not only the Schalit family, but the hundreds of Palestinian families waiting to reunite with their loved ones, and the 1.6 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who are suffering from economic isolation.
It is clear that you place the problem on the shoulders of the Israeli government. It is equally clear that Israel places it back on you. The German mediator seems to have completed his work without an agreement.
Each side is waiting for the other.
The Shura Council must make a decision, and everyone must agree on an acceptable offer to allow Schalit and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to reunite with their families.
Your word and your decision are crucial.
If there is to be a true negotiation, that automatically assumes you won’t get 100% of what you demand. There must be compromise.
You say time is on your side, you can wait until Israel gives in. But look how many people are suffering.
True, the economic siege of Gaza is not only the result of holding Gilad Schalit, but that is the pretext. Israel’s position on the Gaza siege is not being challenged by the international community because Schalit is in Gaza. Why do you offer Israel this pretext? Isn’t it time to push for the siege on Gaza to end? I know Palestinian suffering won’t end with the release of Schalit, and your political struggle will continue long afterward, but why allow this case to drag on? The siege on Gaza will lessen after Schalit is released. This won’t solve the Palestinian problem, but it will ease the situation for the people of Gaza, who are under your direct control.
Your demands are far beyond what the government of Israel can accept. Surely it’s possible to offer something that will be a huge victory for Hamas but one that Israel can also accept. Waiting without real negotiations will solve nothing. We have a long, hot summer ahead of us. The time for reaching an agreement is now.
Israel may attempt a military rescue, even if the price tag is the killing of Schalit. People around Netanyahu strongly advise him to do that, because they would rather have Schalit labeled a dead “hero” than give in to Hamas demands. Don’t believe Israel doesn’t know where Schalit is. If it doesn’t know, it will soon. A military rescue will cost you your most valuable bargaining chip. Free the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners now, while you have that card in your hands. Don’t be too greedy or too confident.
You can lead Hamas to make the right decision now. If you give the green light, this can be done. I would suggest that you empower Ghazi Hamad to negotiate the deal with me – with your approval in hand; I will get the green light from the Israeli government.
Then we can put a speedy end to this nightmare. I urge you: Do what’s necessary to end this story now. ■ The Negotiator is available online. See www.tobypress.com for more info.
©The Toby Press, 2013.