MESS Report / Israel Has Missed Every Opportunity to Free Shalit

The negotiations on the swap deal to free captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit have been stuck since December; the way things look now, the affair is likely to drag on indefinitely.

The negotiations on the swap deal to free captive soldier Gilad Shalit have been stuck since December. As far as is known publicly, nothing significant has happened since German mediator Gerhard Conrad gave Hamas Israel's answer (positive but with conditions ).

Few people on the Israeli side are willing to talk, and no one will speak on the record. But their opinions are similar - there are no signs anything will move anytime soon.

Israel's governments had three opportunities to free Shalit since he was taken prisoner in June 2006. One was right after the abduction, when Hamas' leaders in the Gaza Strip were not yet fully aware of the "asset" they held and were subject to the Israeli military attack of Operation Summer Rains.

Noam Shalit

This opportunity was missed because Ehud Olmert's government got entangled in the Second Lebanon War and the prime minister came out with statements - not implemented for years in Israel - that "we do not negotiate with terrorists."

The second opportunity emerged at the end of Olmert's term in February-March 2009. Gaza was in shock following Operation Cast Lead and Olmert wanted to clear his desk and resolve the Shalit affair before handing over the reins to Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite the apparently favorable terms, a deal did not happen. Olmert sent his own coordinator, Ofer Dekel, and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin to talks in Cairo with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. The Egyptians put Hamas' leaders in a different hotel.

The proposed deal consisted of Israel releasing 450 "heavy" prisoners demanded by Hamas and another 550 prisoners sentenced for lighter offenses. Palestinian sources persisted in believing that Israel would agree to release 400 more prisoners who would not be included on the official list.

Diskin and Dekel said Israel would agree to release up to 325 "heavy" prisoners on Hamas' list. Hamas insisted on the entire list and the talks stalemated.

Behind the scenes, Olmert's people accused Defense Minister Ehud Barak of foiling the deal. They said Barak's visit to the Shalit family's protest tent led Hamas leaders to believe they could continue to twist Israel's arm.

Olmert left the Shalit portfolio to Netanyahu. Former senior Mossad official Hagai Hadas replaced Dekel and Conrad resumed his mediation.

Conrad, who succeeded in formulating the 2004 deal between Israel and Hezbollah for businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum, got Israel to agree to release 325 of 450 prisoners on Hamas' list. Later Israel agreed to release 125 others, but Hamas continued demanding the release of its senior activists.

By December 2009, Conrad had had enough. He set Christmas as a deadline, managed to make a few more proposals, but they were not enough to clinch a deal. He didn't resign, as he had hinted, but the talks have not been resumed since.

A large part of the blame lies with Hamas' leaders, namely Khaled Meshal, head of the organization's political bureau in Damascus. Also to blame are Ahmed Jabri and Mohammed Def, heads of the military wing in Gaza. Even if Hamas' prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, wanted the deal to succeed, he couldn't persuade his partners to join him.

On the Israeli side, the impression that Netanyahu was determined to bring Shalit home seems to have been premature. "Have you ever seen Bibi do anything unless he was under heavy pressure?" asked a source who knows the prime minister well. Since Netanyahu feels no real pressure, he will not change his position, the source predicted.

The cabinet's decision to ease the blockade on Gaza has eliminated the controversial option of putting pressure on Hamas, a move whose results were dubious to begin with. In the past two weeks, amid growing frustration with Netanyahu and the approaching fourth anniversary of Shalit's abduction, his family and the activists campaigning to free him have organized a mass march to pressure the cabinet to make a deal.

Many cynics are joining the bandwagon - journalists eager to inflame emotions, celebrities and politicians, including those who advocate "no concessions." But unlike Netanyahu, they do not bear responsibility for the consequences of freeing murderers in a deal.

It is doubtful whether the new campaign will do any good. In the past four years no public move has had any influence on Netanyahu or Olmert regarding a deal to free Shalit.

The way things look now, this affair is likely to drag on indefinitely and we are likely to mark the fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit's abduction in a year's time.