Lost Cause

After a year and a half of behind-the-scenes efforts, Hezi Mashita and other leaders of the effort to free Gilad Shalit take stock of their failed campaign. Ehud Olmert, they charge, misled them and blocked their initiative.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"I felt as though I had been thrown into an abyss," he says. "It was on the day that a special cabinet meeting was called to hear the report from the emissaries, Ofer Dekel and Shin Bet [security service] chief Yuval Diskin, about Gilad's release. I felt that our dream was about to come true, and I think that in most homes in Israel the feeling was that it was about to happen, that Gilad would be coming home. A whole country waited for the return of one kid."

But that evening, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, told the nation that Israel has "red lines" and that he could not accept the dictates of Hamas. Abruptly, the hopes of Hezi Mashita, chairman of the struggle for the release of Gilad Shalit, were dashed.

"Everything depended on him, and he decided he would not go for it. It was a moment of deep crisis and great sadness. After the cabinet meeting, we went back to the protest tent [near the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem]. I was with Aviva and Noam [Shalit's parents]. One of our activists burst into tears, and it was hard to calm him. I hugged him close. The next day, Noam announced that on the thousandth day since Gilad's abduction they would return home, to Mitzpeh Hila. It was one of the roughest days in the struggle for Gilad."

Almost a month has gone by since then. Mashita is still trying to come to terms with the series of nerve-wracking events he has endured since he became a volunteer in the desperate campaign mounted by the Shalit family for the return of their son. "True, the decision about whether to release Gilad was not in our hands," Mashita says in the tranquil setting of a cafe on the pedestrian mall of Zichron Yaakov. "But knowing that after so much work one didn't accomplish the mission generates the sour feeling of a missed opportunity. We were a group that was preoccupied with this issue day and night, in every direction and on all fronts. The truth is that it is not easy for me to sum up now, because there is really nothing to sum up. You can't sum up something that is not over. Gilad is still not here, and the fact that he is not here means we did not succeed. I know there are people in the campaign who don't like this word, but to a certain degree I see it as a failure. It's a feeling of a personal failure."

Like Mashita, the other leading activists in the Mitzpeh Hila Campaign Headquarters have also been scarred by the ordeals of the struggle. Oded Kidron, from Kfar Vradim, not far from the Shalits' home in the village of Mitzpeh Hila, in Western Galilee, along with three of the Shalits' neighbors - Shimshon Liebman, Shmuel Noah and Amir Gur Lavi - feel a need, albeit tinged with unease, to get things off their chest. It is not easy for them to go public with their feelings, but in an unusual step, the most personal advisers to the Shalit family agreed to tell their story: how they were propelled by a sense of mission that stirred national admiration, but has ended, at least for the time being, in a galling sense of helpless frustration.

Meetings on the porch

Mitzpeh Hila Campaign Headquarters was established in April 2008, nearly two years after Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured in a raid across the Gaza border on June 25, 2006. "It all started from a feeling of anger," says Kidron, an organizational consultant by profession and the driving force behind the campaign. "I thought at the time that the government was not doing its job, that an injustice was being done. That feeling was accompanied by serious concern for my son, who was then seeing action in the Second Lebanon War. The combination of the two things triggered something inside me and I decided to talk to the Shalit family, whom I did not know. I spoke to Noam on the phone. That was exactly a year ago, a few days after the Pesach seder."

On Passover eve a year ago, a rally was held near the prime minister's residence calling for the release of Gilad Shalit and the two soldiers whom Hezbollah had abducted to Lebanon on July 12, 2006, Eldad Regev and Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser. In his conversation with Noam Shalit, Kidron suggested that the abducted soldier's father should organize an exhibit reflecting Gilad Shalit's experience in captivity, which would travel around the country. "My idea was to use a giant container with barred windows, have families spend time inside and interview them before they entered and after they came out. Noam didn't like the idea, but even so, we had a conversation in which I told him that I thought he must start to take more organized action."

At that time, Karnit Goldwasser, Ehud Goldwasser's wife, was leading a public campaign to bring about the soldiers' release; Aviva and Noam Shalit played only a peripheral role. "After Karnit left the stage, the Shalit family remained there alone," says Shimshon Liebman, who owns a consultancy and management firm. "Suddenly one family remained in this story. The family understood that it was on its own now, and at the same time the need to create an independent headquarters increased. There was no other choice."

Liebman sits in the living room of his home in Mitzpeh Hila, a village of about 600 people that faces the hills of Lebanon, now covered in a yellow haze. He remembers hearing about the capture of Gilad Shalit while driving home. "I heard it on the radio, near Kibbutz Ein Harod [in the Jezreel Valley]. When I got home I went immediately to the village secretariat and told them we had to help. They asked me to speak with the family. I went to their home, and that was actually the first time I met them. Noam and Aviva are among the veterans here - they arrived in 1982, two years after the village was founded, and I moved here years later, but even though we didn't know each other it was clear to me that I would be with them throughout the ordeal."

In the bitter week that followed Gilad's capture, Liebman and another village resident, Shmuel Noah, became the representatives of the small community. "We were by their side all along," Liebman says, "but nothing was orderly or formal. We helped out when the media arrived. For example, we spoke to reporters in place of the family when the first video of Gilad in captivity arrived. We met with Noam and Aviva occasionally, we were constantly hovering around them, and we organized a few rallies in Tel Aviv and in Mitzpeh Hila, but that was the extent of our activity. Things didn't start to change until Oded [Kidron] entered the picture."

The first meetings took place every Friday on the Shalit family's porch, which provided a congenial atmosphere for setting goals and mapping strategy. After a time, the group moved to the village secretariat. "The encounter with a family whose son was in captivity and had to deal with the tragedy on its own because the government was not able to communicate with the family, was far from simple," Kidron says. "My feeling was that with bereaved families the whole system is organized and there are rules and procedures, but here a family had to wage the struggle for the return of its son on its own. It was simply absurd. The meetings generated a feeling of injustice, of disappointment and of a terrible fear that Gilad would not come back. That atmosphere had a powerful effect on the meetings."

The bond between the group and the Shalit family grew stronger every week. "We became a type of support group," says Gur Lavi, the owner of a company that produces olive oil. "The meetings were important for Aviva and Noam, because they were flooded with a huge amount of information, letters and suggestions, and they could not cope alone. We tried to be there in order to divide up the tasks and be supportive. The state did not give sufficient backing, and we tried to cover those places, too."

Among the initial activities initiated by the group were rallies, involving bereaved families in the struggle and, above all, setting in motion a public process that would exert pressure on the decision-makers to take action.

"It was clear to us from the day we got together that there are limits to the amount of attention the government can give," Noah says. "We likened the government to a borrower who owes money to a few debtors and will deal first with those who put pressure on him. We were the Shalit family's debt collectors: we came to collect from the government the attention it should be giving to Gilad."

Liebman: "We were terribly frustrated, because we saw that Gilad's release was not on the state's agenda. We understood that we would have to bring to bear effective public pressure in order to induce the government to act. You might ask why we needed a campaign headquarters, why it was necessary to wage a struggle - after all, it is self-evident that Gilad must be brought home. But that's how we are. The issue of abandoning soldiers is not alien to us. There was the case of Madhat Yusuf, who was left to his fate in Joseph's Tomb [in Nablus] in 2000, and there is also the case of Ron Arad.

"The Arad tragedy accompanied all our activity as a warning light from the outset. The Arad family was with us throughout and told us not to let up. Chen Arad, Ron's brother, told us: 'Don't forget that our leaders have no compunctions.' That comment constantly resonated with us." One of the first strategies adopted by the group was to play down and defer as far as possible a prisoner exchange.

"We knew that this was a sensitive and controversial issue," Liebman explains. "We talked about leverage we could exert on Hamas. We sent a letter to [then prime minister Ehud] Olmert containing a list of possible activities that might speed up Gilad's release: closing the crossing points [between Israel and the Gaza Strip], cutting off the supply of fuel and money to Gaza, not allowing the Red Cross to visit the Palestinian prisoners in Israel, publishing a list of prisoners whom Israel was ready to set free - in order to stir the Palestinian mothers who were waiting - and moving prisoners to a detention facility close to the border, as an expression of our willingness to release them. But none of these steps were taken."

Limited window of opportunity

In November, after half a year of activity, the activists reached the conclusion that the burden they had assumed was too great. They decided to appoint Commodore First Class (res.) Hezi Mashita to head up the campaign. This turned out to be a crucially important move. Mashita, a retired Navy officer whose rank is equivalent to brigadier general and the former director general (for three years) of Or Yarok (Green Light), an association that seeks to change the culture of driving in Israel, undertook the task on a volunteer basis and in the belief that he would achieve a breakthrough. At his request, the Shalit family authorized him to conduct all the activity aimed at securing Gilad's release.

"That was a natural development," Noah, a businessman, says. "In my opinion, it was just about the last chance to do something. We thought long and hard about taking that step - the problem was that our activity in the campaign to bring Gilad home had become a burden which took up almost all our time. It was clear that we needed someone to take charge. Hezi and I served together for many years in the Navy, and I was the one who suggested getting him involved, because I knew he had the right sensitivity, experience and ability."

A key reason for bringing in Mashita was Olmert's announcement at the end of July 2008 that he would not seek another term as prime minister. That declaration changed the rules of the game for the Shalit group. "It was obvious that we had a limited window of opportunity and that the situation had changed radically," Noah notes. "It was clear that we would have to step up our efforts, based on the understanding that both the government and Hamas would internalize the change and understand that there was a specified time in which it would be possible to conclude the matter."

A few weeks after the new forum took shape, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. The incursion sparked fears for Gilad's life, but also stirred hopes that Israel would insist on the captive soldier's return as part of a cease-fire agreement. In the event, however, Shalit's return was not linked to the conclusion of hostilities and a renewed period of calm between Israel and Hamas.

"That was the end result, even though immediately after the end of the fighting the Prime Minister's Office intimated to us that the prospects for Gilad's return had improved, and that Olmert intended to act vigorously to ensure this," Mashita says. "He told us: 'Let me work, there is a chance.' There were more personal messages in this vein to Noam."

In addition to the messages, Noam Shalit and Mashita met with most of the members of the security cabinet. "We wanted to ensure, ahead of the first meeting of the security cabinet after the war, that any decisions that might be made about a cease-fire would be linked to Gilad's fate," Mashita says. "In the press conference we held at Mitzpeh Hila two hours before the security cabinet meeting, our message was that after the war, Gilad did not have to stand alone; in other words, there was no need to talk about a 'Shalit deal.' I believed that in the wake of the war, one clause of the agreement should be devoted to Gilad."

A key unknown at the time was the degree of support the Shalit activists had in the security cabinet. What was their attitude toward a prisoner exchange involving some 450 Palestinians, some of them brutal murderers? Mashita : "I have no doubt that if the offer that was then on the agenda - and was on the agenda throughout Olmert's term of office - had been brought to the security cabinet, it would have been accepted. But it was the prime minister's exclusive prerogative to present the offer to the security cabinet. For reasons of his own, he decided not to put it to a vote. Members of the security cabinet told us that whenever they raised the Shalit issue, Olmert replied, 'Leave it to me, I am dealing with it.'"

Did you believe in that approach?

"Ministers in the security cabinet and personnel in the security branches did not project a sense of optimism that something was about to happen."

The campaign leaders say that Olmert was able to prevent them from carrying out several large-scale public activities, notably two big demonstrations that were planned for Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. "We wanted to hold demonstrations of that order," Gur Lavi says. "But we received a message from the Prime Minister's Office to the effect that such demonstrations would be harmful to the negotiations. We approached Olmert before every action, and we asked and consulted, because we were led to understand that if we carried out significant activities we were liable to sabotage the prospects of liberating Gilad. On two occasions we were told - not by hints but by a specific demand - not to hold a demonstration because there was a turning point [in the negotiations for Shalit's release]. In retrospect, I understand that this was really a type of trap, a form of emotional manipulation on Aviva and Noam Shalit to postpone and even cancel demonstrations."

The cancellation of the planned demonstrations in Rabin Square also sheds light on the complex relations that existed between the five activists and the Shalit family. They express themselves cautiously about the difficulty of working with the parents: "During the year, all kinds of ideas came up," Kidron recalls. "For example, we recommended going to Jerusalem five months before it actually happened, but Noam said it was inappropriate. As a consultant to managers, I am practiced at accepting a 'no' answer, at accepting the decision of the leader, and Noam always had the final say. We only gave advice. But I have to admit that there was a certain disappointment when we all said that Aviva should be integrated into the activities, and then it took such a long time for that to happen. Over the whole of the past year we tried to get Aviva more and more actively involved, because we realized that we were not stirring the public's emotions sufficiently. Noam's appearances were very rational, and we needed something to complement that.

"Liebman: "Our gut feeling was that we needed to take more public action. That happened gradually, until the peak - the protest tent in Jerusalem. But we thought the family should have gone to Jerusalem long before they actually did so. The Shalit family was not in a hurry to do that. Noam and Aviva, and especially Aviva, found the media exposure extremely difficult. At first, Noam was very restrained and cautious in his use of language. Over time, he started to speak out more sharply, more clearly. It was a process. We talked about this a great deal. We recalled the mother of the soldier Yossi Grof. She was a true symbol, crying relentlessly until her son was released in the Jibril deal, in which Israel freed more than 1,000 terrorists. [Grof was taken prisoner in Lebanon in September 1982 and released in May 1985 with two other soldiers in return for 1,150 prisoners incarcerated in Israel, including Kozo Okamoto, who was serving multiple life sentences for his part in the Lod Airport massacre of 1972.]

"Aviva and Noam believed in the dialogue they conducted with the decision-makers, in conversations held in quiet rooms. We believed that media noise would be more effective. In my opinion, part of our success in getting Aviva and Noam to take the public stage increasingly was due to the fact that they themselves started to despair of the promises being made to them."

On what basis did you guide the Shalit family? After all, you are not professionals in this sphere. Could it be that you took on too much in offering them advice?

Mashita: "To begin with, we did not work alone. Public relations firms and ad agencies that specialize in crisis management and media campaigns - such as Rimon Cohen Shenkman and Shalmor Avnon Amichay - were always involved in our activities. Together with them we ran campaigns such as 'Don't let indifference kill them,' 'Gilad is still alive' and the last campaign, 'Help!' in Gilad's handwriting. We were also in constant contact with attorney Uri Slonim, who has 20 years' experience in getting abductees released. At every turn, our moves were backed up by no end of meetings and consultations. But irrespective of that, I think our work was very professional and as good as anyone's. We relied on common sense."

That isn't how Olmert saw it. He said your activity, which used saturation media coverage, actually hurt the negotiations and induced Hamas to up its demands.

Mashita: "What the issue received in the media was what the media wanted - there was no push by us. The journalists themselves determined the scale of the coverage. We actually turned down about half the requests for coverage. Olmert's criticism of the family's decision to go to Jerusalem is unfair. In fact, it borders on impertinence. The family went to Jerusalem 990 days after their son was abducted. Everyone knows that the intensive activity that was generated and gathered momentum toward the end of Olmert's term, was due only to the fact that the family moved to the protest tent. If the family had stayed quietly in Mitzpeh Hila just because Olmert said he would bring their son back, nothing would have happened, not even the little that was done."

Kidron: "The appointment of Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin as a mediator was part of Olmert's base and despicable ploys. In the final marathon of the last few days Diskin assumed far greater weight than he had before, and not, I think, in his best interests. Olmert entrusted his moves to opponents. I believe that when we reached the photo finish, Diskin received authorization from Olmert to end the story and not strike a deal. In those last minutes of Olmert's term, even [prime minister-designate Benjamin] Netanyahu indicated that he would be happy if the problem were solved. But Olmert wasn't capable of it, and afterward he prostituted himself by his cruel comments claiming that the family itself had spiked the deal by demonstrating."

Liebman: "My feeling when I heard him tell Gilad's parents in his final days in office that 'I did everything I could,' was that this was a blatant lie."

Starting from scratch

Two weeks ago, the five members of the Mitzpeh Hila Campaign Headquarters met, despite the difficulty, to sum up their activity. The venue: an isolated cabin in the Upper Galilee community of Mitzpeh Harashim. They were well aware that they had not succeeded in finding the key to Gilad's release, despite their efforts and the calculated strategy they adopted.

"We held a very intense meeting to sum up the year," Kidron relates. "The meeting, which was held without Aviva and Noam, lasted almost five hours. We talked about what succeeded and what did not succeed. In the first part of the meeting we looked at the past, and in the second part we considered what needs to be done as a follow-up. Now, with a new government in power, the question arose of what action the group should take."

Liebman: "We have to start over from scratch, and that is terrible. What was especially distressing was that we reached a peak in terms of the public process, but failed to bring Gilad home."

The word is that Netanyahu is still traumatized by the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. [Israel freed the Hanas leader following Jordan's capture of Israeli agents who tried to assassinate senior Hamas figure Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1997, when Netanyahu was prime minister.] Moreover, he will find it very difficult to release terrorists that Olmert balked at freeing. On top of this, he is surrounded by hardliners who have declared that they oppose a deal for Shalit's return. Have you therefore reached a dead end?

Noah: "There is always a chance. I am not capable of thinking we have reached a dead end. Every day brings new hope. This is such a basic, moral issue that if I did not see hope, I would not live in this country. When I reach the conclusion that there is no hope for Gilad Shalit, I will have no reason to stay here. If a soldier in captivity is not brought back, there is no reason to live here any longer. That will be a new standard, which the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who risk their lives for the state in the regular army and the reserves will have to take into account."

Liebman: "We have to be different. Our elected officials must understand that this is not an arm-wrestling match between us and Hamas. If we do not treat human life as a higher value, we are lost. From this point of view, I am absolutely convinced of the need and of our commitment to obtain Gilad's release. He is not only Aviva and Noam's son, he is the Gilad of us all, a symbol. I view this as a formative event. It is not something that will go away. We are deteriorating as a state; our leaders are becoming more cynical and bourgeois - people who think only about themselves."

Gur Lavi: "This is a very confusing time, in which reality programs like 'Big Brother' and 'Race for a Million' have become the be-all and end-all. Our whole terminology is about campaigns, ratings and reality shows. From the outset, 70 percent of the public was willing to get Gilad back at any price, even though the numbers involved were staggering, but at the last minute all this was undermined and overturned. With great skill, Olmert succeeded in turning public opinion around by means of a spin. He said the price was too high, and the public accepted that. Maybe he was afraid that he would be remembered for having freed prisoners and not for liberating Gilad Shalit. In any event, it is clear that he did not see the tremendous importance of adhering to the principle of mutual surety, which is the linchpin of our existence."

Even now, as Gilad Shalit fades from public perception, the kid they never met continues to haunt the leaders of the struggle on his behalf. "With every passing day, I find myself thinking more and more about Gilad," Mashita says. "It hit me really hard at Pesach. We are all leading our lives, but there is one kid in Gaza who never sees the light of day and doesn't know what time it is or what season of the year it is. The simple things of life. He was with me very intensely during Pesach. I remember passing signs that towns and cities put up wishing the public a happy holiday, and added, 'Let us hope that Gilad will be with us on the next holiday.' I also heard television hosts saying the same thing on all manner of occasions. Maybe I have become acutely sensitive to the story, but all this really grated on me. It's as though people are saying, 'We have got through this Festival of Freedom and on the next holiday we will think of him again.' But the issue of Gilad's freedom has to be a day-to-day matter - it doesn't have to wait for a holiday. It doesn't have to wait another day. I thought to myself: It can't be that this nightmare is continuing."