Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that he has appointed former senior Mossad intelligence agency operative Haggai Hadas to head negotiations with Hamas over the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.
Hadas, 56, who spoke with Shalit's father, Noam Shalit, shortly before his appointment was announced, is scheduled to begin his new job this morning with a round of talks with experts and officials, including Ofer Dekel, who was former prime minister Ehud Olmert's representative on the Shalit talks.
The wording of the announcement on Hadas' appointment shows the emphasis of his role could be operational no less than holding negotiations with Shalit's abductors, mediated by foreign officials, mainly Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Sources close to Hadas who spoke to him after Netanyahu had approached him said they gleaned the impression that getting Shalit back would not be "hocus-pocus" but that the renewed talks would involve "long and exhausting 'trench warfare.'" Hadas expressed his appreciation for the efforts of his predecessors, particularly Dekel, and said he believed that since the basic conditions in the affair had not changed just because a new government had been elected and a new negotiator appointed, a breakthrough was not to be expected.
Before deciding on the appointment, Netanyahu consulted Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who warmly recommended Hadas. Hadas was involved in a number of operations overseen by Barak when the latter was head of Military Intelligence and later IDF chief of staff.
In the 1970s, Hadas was commander of the Paratroops Brigade reconnaissance force and later headed special operations for the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces.
After retiring once from the Mossad, Hadas was brought back by former prime minister Ariel Sharon. He became the third highest official in Mossad. However, he left the service again in 2006 due to tensions with Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
In announcing Hadas' appointment at yesterday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "The communications channel with Hamas must be reopened quickly, through Egypt, and the talks must be brought back on track."
The Prime Minister's Bureau announced that Hadas would be assisted by various defense officials, and by Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor and MK Israel Hasson (Kadima), both of whom were on the short list for the post of Shalit negotiator, which Meridor turned down.
The statement by Netanyahu's bureau also noted that Hadas is "considered an intelligence and special operations man of the highest caliber."
However, a senior defense source criticized the appointment in light of the strained relations between Hadas and Dagan, noting that Hadas has no experience with senior Egyptian intelligence officials who are talking to Hamas about Shalit.
Despite the tensions between them, Hadas intends to cooperate with Dagan and utilize his connections with Suleiman and other security officials in the region.
Hadas does not have experience fielding Arab agents, and does not know Arabic, which could be considered a drawback in his new post.
Egyptian sources involved in the Shalit negotiations said Israel had to resume the negotiations from the point where they were stopped, "otherwise there is no real point to talks; Hamas will refuse." In the last round of talks with Dekel, and Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin, the Israeli side agreed to release 325 out of the 450 prisoners Hamas demanded be freed. Egyptian sources leveled veiled criticism at Israel for its handling of the talks, saying that the increasing numbers of prisoners Israel was willing to release showed Hamas that if it waits patiently, the other side will release all the prisoners on the list.
Meanwhile, Noam Shalit, Gilad Shalit's father, who was participating in the annual Salute to Israel parade yesterday along New York's Fifth Avenue, told Haaretz that he had heard of Hadas' appointment, adding: "I have no idea who he is. I hope to meet him soon." Shalit also said it was about time to appoint a new negotiator, months after the formation of the new government.
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