Ehud Barak, Aviva and Noam Shalit -  Olivier Fitoussi - 28102011
Ehud Barak, right, greeting Aviva and Noam Shalit. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Ten days after abducted soldier Gilad Shalit returned home from captivity, the argument over the deal continues.

Officials in the political leadership and defense establishment say Israel could have made a better deal. A senior defense source accused Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a conversation with Haaretz this week, of reluctance to authorize military action that could have given Israel an edge in negotiating the prisoner-swap deal. He said Barak's conduct stemmed from fear of escalation in relations with Hamas and rocket fire from Gaza.

The IDF and Shin Bet security service are to hold internal inquiries to pinpoint the mistakes and hitches that ended up with releasing 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit.

Senior officials agree that a combination of intelligence failures on the Shin Bet's part and inaction on the IDF's part left the ministers no alternative but to agree to the prisoner-swap deal. But a number of defense sources now say members of Netanyahu's cabinet had a hand in the poor result.

"They could have done more. More pressure could have been exerted on Hamas and more intelligence could have been gathered about Shalit's location," a senior defense official said. "This is true for the period of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, but also for other periods in the negotiations. Barak became enamored of the deal idea too early in the process and sabotaged operative ideas that could have brought us nearer to another solution. The IDF also gave up and stopped bringing up new ideas."

Israel had opportunities to exercise pressure on Hamas' military branch to agree to a deal at an earlier stage and with better conditions for Israel, the official said.

"They could also have initiated more and obtained more intelligence about where Shalit was being held, but things were not done in time," he said.

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu did not intervene and refrained from making any decision contrary to the defense minister's opinion, mainly for fear of escalation in the Gaza Strip, the defense official added.

Two other defense sources confirmed Israel had taken a restrained approach over the past five years, mainly for fear that the retaliation would be massive rocket fire at Negev communities.