Shamgar: Did you ask why it took almost five years?

Encountering Peace: All of my direct knowledge and involvement testifies to the belief that we could have brought Gilad four years earlier.

Gilad and Noam Schalit reuniting 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters))
Gilad and Noam Schalit reuniting 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters))
Last week the Shamgar Commission, which was established to examine ways to deal with cases of kidnappings of Israelis, civilians or soldiers, issued its report. Most of the 100- plus page report is secret, but the parts that were disclosed discussed the idea of transferring the handling of such cases from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Ministry of Defense. The report suggested that a permanent and professional function be established for this purpose that would have no contact with the family of the victim and would be depoliticized.
The substantive elements of the report have not been made part of the public record and I have no inside knowledge of the content, but we can guess that the report deals with the price paid in the past for abducted Israeli soldiers or prisoners of war and the decision making process at the governmental level regarding negotiations for their release.
I think that almost all Israelis would agree that first of all we should avoid situations where the enemy is successful in abducting one of our soldiers. Secondly, most people would all agree that if, God forbid, a soldier is abducted, we would prefer for the soldier to either escape or to be rescued in a military operation, preferably one that also resulted in the capture of the kidnappers.
The IDF failed to bring Gilad Schalit home with a heroic military operation. Immediately following the abduction the military probably knew where Gilad was being held, but deemed it impossible to bring him home alive. Later, when we had no idea where he was being held, no military operation could even be considered.
As the person who opened the negotiations channel between Israel and Hamas I thought that if it was necessary to negotiate an exchange, it should be done as quickly as possible for as small a price as possible. Throughout the ordeal, government and military officials claimed that public talk about the negotiations would drive up the price.
This proved to be false. The basic price and formula for Schalit’s release (450 Palestinian prisoners from a Hamas list, and another 550 prisoners selected by Israel) was set, and agreed, by January 2007, about six months after the abduction. The public campaign in Israel to bring Schalit home did not drive up Hamas’ asking price. In fact, the opposite is true: The first set of demands I received from Hamas a couple of months after the kidnapping was for 1,500 prisoners, an end to the siege of Gaza and a full mutual cease-fire.
WE ALL feel the price we paid for Gilad was high, very high. Most people around the world were amazed that Israel was willing to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds with Jewish blood on their hands, for one single Israeli soldier.
One Hamas negotiator, Salah al- Arouri, who is credited with building the Izzadin Kassam force in the West Bank, praised the “strength” Israel showed in a prisoner exchange on Israel radio saying: “To do what Israel did shows the value Israeli society places on human life. This is a pillar of Israel’s strength – to wage a war to free one man, to free a thousand prisoners for him, this is the strength of a society and an army.”
In the end Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave the mandate to his special envoy David Meidan from the Mossad to complete the negotiations that brought Gilad home. I believe Netanyahu made that decision to make the deal after he came to the realization that there was no other way to bring the soldier home. He knew that there was no military option, and he believed that if he didn’t move now, there was a good chance Gilad might not come home alive. The regional circumstances also created a window of opportunity which he believed could close a deal quickly.
These conditions emerged together with an opportunity provided by me for direct back channel contacts that led directly to the people holding Gilad and those responsible for making the decision in Hamas. The public campaign, I believe, had an impact on Netanyahu as well, and should not be dismissed. I believe that waking every day to the sight of the Schalit family in front of the prime minister’s residence with the number of days in captivity in bold numbers had to have had an impact on Netanyahu.
I do not believe that Netanyahu made the decision because of political calculations. To the best of my knowledge, Netanyahu made the decision to negotiate a deal in mid-April, long before the summer protests and six months before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked the UN to declare a Palestinian state. He made the decision because there was simply no other way to bring Gilad home alive.
Was the Shamgar Commission report able to generalize from the specific Schalit case to possible future similar cases? I don’t know, but I seriously doubt it. Will the “professionals” in the Ministry of Defense be more professional than Ofer Dekel, Hagai Hadas and David Meidan? Will they be more immune to public pressure than Netanyahu? Is the Minister of Defense any less of a political personality than the prime minister? Is the desire or demand to pay a smaller price going to affect the way that future abductors of Israeli soldiers relate to the precious asset that they are holding? Again, I doubt it.
I am afraid that if there is no military option to rescue a kidnapped soldier, there is no alternative to negotiations. My main hope is that next time, God forbid, it won’t have to take five years and four months. All of my direct knowledge and involvement testifies to the belief that we could have brought Gilad home at least four years earlier for the exact same price. The question that Shamgar Commission should really be asking is why did it take so much longer than it should have?
The writer is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and a radio host on All for Peace Radio