Israeli negotiator: Social protest affected Netanyahu's decision on Shalit deal
David Meidan reveals details of Israel-Hamas negotiations, Egyptian mediation and his first encounter with Gilad Shalit.
David Meidan, Prime Minister Benjamin's Netanyahu special envoy to negotiations for last October's release of Gilad Shalit, said Monday the decision to close the deal was influenced by political considerations such as the summer 2011 social protest.
Speaking at a closed lecture at Tel Aviv University, Meidan said: "There were a lot of reasons [for the deal], the social protest was part of the considerations... not a central part...What happened in Syria affected [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal. I can say many things, but the central factor was the Egyptian factor."
Meidan revealed details of the negotiations with Hamas, the strange mediation offers, the laser eye surgery Egyptian intelligence arranged for Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabri, the warm ties with the Shalit family and Gilad Shalit's current mental state.
"Ten years from today, nobody will remember if we freed terrorists or not, the only thing we'll remember is that a 20-year-old was in captivity, all alone, without windows and saw sunlight only once, was wounded in both arms and didn't see a doctor, was without glasses, and still came home completely normal. Today he is optimistic and busy planning his future."
Meidan implicitly criticized the intelligence failure in Shalit's five-and-a-half-year captivity, revealing that from the moment of the kidnapping until the end of Ehud Olmert's term as prime minister, "Our intelligence knew nothing about Gilad - who was holding him captive, his situation, nothing. The negotiators were completely in the dark."
Meidan was appointed in April 2011, replacing Hagai Hadas.
"On our side there was a feeling it wouldn't work, that there's nobody to talk to, and that Hamas isn't interested in a deal," Meidan said.
In his first weeks on the job, he said many private citizens talked to him, including an Israeli professor who met Hamas officials at conventions abroad and a dentist who treated Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons, gained their trust and heard their willingness to convey messages concerning the Shalit deal.
"From all the offers I received – there was one that stood out – It was made by Gershon Baskin, a peace activist," Meidan said. "He is an Israeli leftist and he said he was in contact with the Hamas: 'I know Deputy Foreign Minister Razi Hamad and Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' military wing and am willing to relay messages back in forth.'"
Median revealed that an intensive round of negotiations took place with Baskin via SMS.
"For a whole month we talked in text messages, from morning to night. Late at night, I would write Hamas that we'll continue tomorrow, and they would answer 'good night,'" said Meidan.
In order to progress from text-messaging dialogs via an Israeli peace activist to a more serious form of negotiations, a mediator was required. Meidan said that Israel was trying to decide between Turkish, Qatari and Egyptian mediation.
"We wanted to find someone who knew how to talk to Hamas. In Turkey, we had [Prime Minister] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was hostile to Israel, but I knew we could work with the head of Turkey's intelligence."
Meidan said that he traveled to Ankara to meet him and find out whether or not he would be willing to mediate.
"He said the Turkish government would be willing to send people to the Gaza Strip and Damascus and do anything else needed," Meidan recalled. "There were some problems, though. They didn't speak Arabic, and the Egyptians wouldn't let them cross into the Gaza Strip. We tried to have the Egyptians and Turks work together, but failed."
In the end, the decision was made to work with the Egyptian intelligence service, even though the revolution had already taken place there. According to Meidan, the Egyptians took on the task right away and made intensive efforts, focusing their pressure on Ahmed Jabari, the man who was holding Shalit. Their strategy was to pamper Jabari, he said.
"They dined with him, bought him clothes, and even provided him with laser surgery to remove his eyeglasses," Median said.
Another piece of information Meidan revealed on Monday had to do with the extreme compartmentalization of the negotiations. He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were notified, but no other ministers were briefed.
After the agreement was initialed, following Yom Kippur, Meidan met with Noam and Aviva Shalit.
"I told them, 'The public doesn't know a thing, so please go on with your regular routine so that the journalists won't suspect anything,'" Meidan recalled.
The actual day of exchange was more complicated, he said.
"The Egyptians wanted to hold a festival in Cairo with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [then French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. But in the end, they understood it wasn't fitting," Median said. "After that, they decided to hold an event in Sinai and fly a helicopter there to bring over Gilad, but decided that would be too dangerous."
Meidan revealed he received orders from Netanyahu not to give the green light to free the Palestinian prisoners until we knew Shalit was in fact alive.
"We prepared a room in Kerem Shalom and installed Skype on the computer. The program was installed on the other end so that we could see that he was alive. It was decided that I would recognize him via Skype and talk to him, and only then give the okay to release the prisoners," he said.
Meidan asked Shalit a few questions about his family via Skype to confirm his mental state was sound.
According to Meidan, the hardest part, paradoxically, was retrieving Shalit. "I entered and saw Gilad… with his pale gaunt face. He was very weak, conjuring up images of the liberation of concentration camps by the U.S. military."