Why Did Netanyahu Agree to a Shalit Deal He Had Once Opposed?

The PM signed a deal to send 1,027 Palestinian prisoners free, despite rejecting a similar proposal, maybe even a better one, only six months prior.

In March 2009, during the later stages of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's term, a delegation of Israeli security officials sat in the Cairo compound of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate. Present were chief negotiator for the release of Gilad Shalit, Ofer Dekel; Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin; and officials from the POW and MIA departments of Mossad, Military Intelligence, and Shin Bet.

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In a separate building nearby, sat the head of Hamas' military wing Ahmed Jabari, who had crossed into Egypt from the Gaza Strip along with several of his aides. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal was not present in those discussions nor was Hamas' Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar. German mediator Gerhard Conrad, a senior officer in the BND, was absent as well. At that time he was not part of the negotiations and his role was confined only to help the contacts with Hezbollah for the 2008 swap.

The point of the meetings was to tied up any loose strings concerning the final details of a prisoner swap deal that would set Shalit free after three years in Hamas captivity.

Mediating and supervising these proximity talks between Israel and Hamas were Egyptian intelligence officials, chief among them was then-head of Egyptian intelligence Omar Suleiman, along with his deputy General Omar Qinawi. 

Shehata had been the head of Egypt's security delegation to Gaza, until Hamas' violent takeover of the coastal Strip in 2007, during which the Egyptians were booted out of Gaza, along with all PLO officials.

The Cairo talks were considered at the time to be the climax of a process that began in 2007, not long after Gilad Shalit was abducted, a process in which both the Egyptians and Conrad had played an important role.

At first, Hamas demanded that Israel release 1,400 terrorists. Dekel and the Israeli negotiations team were instructed by Olmert to cut the number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed in the deal, and to go no higher than 450.

Acting on instruction, the Israeli delegation set several guidelines according to which they would run the talks. It was decided that Israel would not free Israeli Arab prisoners, viewing the Hamas demand to free them as a "red line."

In addition, it was agreed that most of the top West Bank terrorists would not be allowed to return to their homes, and would be deported either to Gaza or abroad.

Other criteria the Israeli delegation set to determine who would be released were:

Terrorists with "blood on their hands"
Whether or not a said prisoner was in a command position, and had ordered the execution of attacks against Israelis
The severity of the attack (number of Israeli fatalities as a result of his actions)
Length of time served in Israeli prisons
Special circumstances, such as health condition.

In addition, the sides established that each party could appeal the lists handed in by the other.

Hamas submitted a list of terrorists it demanded be released by Israel. Israeli officials went over the names, rejecting many of them, and submitting a list of its own. Hamas then rejected that list.

Gradually the list was narrowed down to 450 prisoners that would be released, including female inmates.

At that point, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, fearing that the release of terrorists from Israeli jails would be considered a victory for Hamas, thus injuring the stature of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, intervened in the negotiations.

Mubarak and Suleiman asked Olmert to make a gesture to Abbas by releasing 550 terrorists. The former PM, who was then engaged in feverish peace negotiations with Abbas, agreed.

It was decided that the release of 550 terrorists would be completed at a later date; that their release would be conditioned on the success of Israel's talks with Hamas; that the 550 would not be considered part of the deal with Hamas; and that, in any case, Israel alone would determine which prisoners would go free.

Israeli security, led by the Shin Bet, which had a crucial influence on Shalit talks, agreed that prisoners who killed had Israelis would not be release as part of the gesture to Abbas.

Thus the sides arrived at the equation of 1,000 Palestinian terrorists in exchange for one Israeli soldier.

Eventually, after two more years of negotiations, Hamas and Israeli representatives arrived in Cairo at what should have been the last and crucial step ahead of sealing the deal, with an agreed-upon list of 325 terrorists Israel was willing to release.

A fierce debate continued over the other 125 Hamas wanted released. They included terrorists linked to the initiation, command, planning, launch, and execution of some of the most heinous terror attacks of the second Intifada, such as the 2002 bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya on the first night of Passover, the 2001 attack on Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem, the 2001 bombing at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv, the suicide bombing at Maxim restaurant in Haifa in 2003, and more.

Israel had determined that those terrorists would never be released, a harsh stance which ultimately proved fatal.

Hamas representatives estimated that, faced with growing public protest in Israel, Olmert's days as prime minister were numbered, and stood firm on their demands, essentially ending all hope for a deal to emerge.

As a sidenote, Hamas never included the name of Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti, who is considered a potential heir to Abbas despite currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for his role in deadly attacks during the intifada.

An Israeli source told Haaretz that, "Even if they did bring his name up from time to time, it was clear to us that they weren't interested in seeing him released, since that would bolster the PLO."

In any event, Israel would have never agreed to that demand, just as it still refuses to release Secretary -General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Ahmed Saadat, whose men assassinated former Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi in Jerusalem in October 2001.

Negotiations were halted for a while in the wake of Olmert's resignation and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election victory. Netanyahu made it clear that he would not agree to show flexibility, and that any negotiations were a triumph for terror.

Against the backdrop of this stance, Ofer Dekel eventually resigned from his position as head of Shalit talks, and was eventually replaced by former Mossad man Haggai Hadas.

Hadas renewed negotiations with Egyptian assistance, with the German mediator being slowly pushed out over Hamas claims that he was biased in Israel's favor. Conrad was then transferred to a different position in the German intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst). Renewed talks took on the same form as that set by Dekel.

Six months ago, Hadas reached an understanding with Hamas, but Netanyahu rejected it. A dejected Hadas resigned, and was replaced by another Mossad official, David Meidan.

Last Thursday, Meidan signed his name to a prisoner exchange agreement with Hamas, along guidelines similar to those already formulated by Hadas.

Both sides proved flexible, and made a few concessions, mostly on Israel's part; the number of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners was expanded to 1,027; Israel agreed to include Israeli Arab prisoners; Israel agreed to release several dozen terrorists who were included the original "red line" group of 125; and fewer prisoners were to be deported to Gaza and abroad.

So, what happened in the last six months that made Netanyahu change his position on a Shalit swap deal?

It seems that the PM was motivated by several considerations, both foreign and domestic. Firstly, his stature was weakened following the wave of socioeconomic protests which had swept Israel, as well as a lengthy doctors' strike and orchestrated walkout by medical interns.

In the diplomatic arena, Israel's position on the global stage was deteriorating over what seemed like Netanyahu's unwillingness to conduct sincere peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

The PA's bid for statehood at the United Nations is the strongest indication of Israel's growing international isolation. Things became even worse as far as Israel's relationship with the United States was concerned.

When faced with all these factors, and out of a desire to improve his public standing, Netanyahu agreed to sign the deal with Hamas. What's more, Netanyahu will probably shed no tears for the weakening of Abbas' prominence following the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Despite all that, one must welcome the deal that will finally put an end to Gilad Shalit's five years of captivity. But what's needed now is the establishment of rules and regulations for Israel's conduct in any future prisoner exchange negotiations.