The darkness that cast a pall over life in the State of Israel last week was interrupted somewhat by a ray of light: the resignation of Ofer Dekel. The envoy of the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who oversaw efforts to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, instead released Benjamin Netanyahu from his presence. The dybbuk was out. Now, finally, it will be possible to return the kidnapped soldier.
Dekel, who was called upon to aid in the task, was punished as part of the portrayal of him as a failure and an obstacle. This would have been preposterous had it not been so sad. Though in this type of negotiation the envoy is far from being just a courier, the real power is in the hands of the two sides for which he acts as a go-between. On the Israeli side, there is importance attached to government policy and the priorities given to the allocation of intelligence and defense resources. On the Palestinian side, the determining factor is the balance of power between operatives and various other players. The envoy has very limited wiggle room. Even his very appointment is no simple matter. If he is not a state employee, an arrangement must be made to ensure there is no conflict of interest.
Earlier this month Netanyahu asked the attorney general to arrange such a dispensation for attorney Yitzhak Molcho, a longtime associate and his emissary in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Molcho is not only tied to business interests. He is also honorary consul to a foreign country - Austria.
Implicitly or explicitly, with (relative) justification or not, the first decision made by Olmert, his ministers, his officers, and his aides after Shalit's abduction in June 2006 was to make the release of Shalit a lower priority than that of other security issues. Not one person in any agency or government body was entrusted with coordinating efforts and given a mandate to devote as much time as possible to preparations for rescuing Shalit from his captors. The staff that Dekel was appointed to head - one that included a colonel from Military Intelligence as well as two senior officials of equal stature from the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad, who had dealt with missing soldiers and prisoners of war, a total of three individuals who were a full party to all the contacts held on the matter and who were always accompanied by a note-taker - was not in charge of the operational aspects. There was no "general" who was hired to take up the issue, as is customary in elite units. A wide net may have been cast along the huge sea in Gaza but there was no fisherman present. If reliable information had surfaced on Shalit's exact whereabouts, intelligence that might have made it possible to go ahead and plan a rescue operation, well, that would have been great. And if not, them's the breaks.
One of the problems, which was rooted in various interests (personal, organizational, ideological), was the reservations expressed by Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, vis-a-vis Dekel's mission. After Olmert sobered up from his initial arrogance, and accepted the principle of bargaining over the list of 450 prisoners who committed terror attacks (in addition to another 550 prisoners from the stone-throwing league), the exchange of messages was handled slowly due to Hamas' modus operandi. The Palestinians submitted a list of 100 names. Israel accepted 20 of them and rejected the other 80. Some time later, another list arrived, with 84 names, only four of them new, and so on. Ultimately, even after an obstinate Diskin was added to Dekel's last trip to Cairo, thus outflanking him from the left while expressing a greater readiness to release-and-expel prisoners, there remained some 120 Palestinians convicted of murder whom Dekel and Diskin together opposed setting free.
The complex relations between the Mubarak regime and Hamas meant that Egypt was designated to play a secondary role, though less apparent to the eye, in the Shalit deal. Egypt hosted the talks and, if an agreement had been struck, was supposed to have assumed the role of corridor that would have brought Shalit home, from Rafah to Nitzana. But the real intermediaries between Dekel and Hamas were based in other countries. "Intermediaries" rather than "intermediary," because the various players in Hamas - Khaled Meshal in Damascus, Mahmoud a-Zahar and Ahmed Jabari, the head of the group's military wing in Gaza - also dealt with other various go-betweens of their own, who pulled a number of levers designed to pressure, entice and spur.
Clinching such a complex, fragile deal is similar to trying to find the code for a lock on a safe. It is not enough to figure out the correct numbers. One also needs the proper order, the right direction, and perfect timing. This in fact very nearly occurred in the final days of Olmert's tenure, when Dekel and Diskin shuttled to Cairo. Hamas was also imbued with wall-to-wall readiness, which nearly reached the wall of Shalit's hidden prison. But it was one man, Jabari, who contemplated, recanted and decided to dig in his heels. His immovable number thwarted the cracking of the safe. If we want to bring Shalit back without a military operation, it is not the Israeli envoy who needs to be replaced, but Jabari.
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