Defense officials learned only late in the game about the goodwill gesture to Syria that’s expected to culminate in the release soon of two Syrians being held in Israeli prisons. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that a deal was sealed at the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow early this month. (The Prime Minister’s Office denies this.)
Or maybe the gesture wasn’t planned in advance and was a response to a Russian request after Syria was infuriated by the removal from its soil, without permission from Damascus, of the remains of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who went missing after a battle in Lebanon in 1982.
When the army, and later the Prime Minister’s Office, announced in early April that Baumel’s remains had been found in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus — according to reports in Arab media outlets — and was returned to Israel, every Israeli official who communicated with the media stressed that no quid pro quo with Syria was involved. Baumel’s body was located using Israeli intelligence and was brought from Syria to Russia by the Russian army before being sent on to Israel. But the idea that Putin wouldn’t demand, sooner or later, something in return for his humanitarian gesture borders on naivete. Moscow does not believe in no-strings gifts.
Around two weeks ago, Israeli defense officials first heard that a prisoner release was being considered as a symbolic gesture. Early last week the decision was made to free the two prisoners. Moscow’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, announced the upcoming move on Saturday morning.
The Israeli explanation for the gesture revolves around pressure from Syrian President Bashar Assad on Putin. Baumel’s remains were retrieved from Syria clandestinely, under the regime’s nose and with no advance announcement. Putin, trying to cover up the embarrassment caused to Assad, claimed at his press conference with Netanyahu that it was a joint operation involving the Syrian army.
Sources in Damascus were quick to deny this. Syria was put in a difficult situation, portrayed as having let Israelis and Russians operate freely on Syrian soil. The release of two Syrian prisoners was necessary as a belated compensatory payment to Assad.
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The two Syrian prisoners are small fry: One is a Syrian serving time for drug smuggling and is due for release this year after the commutation of one-third of his sentence. The second is a Palestinian who was arrested for sneaking into Israel and bungling an attempted attack on an army outpost in the Golan Heights. (An officer overcame the man, who was armed with a hunting rifle.)
The problem here has to do with the way the prime minister chose to carry out the gesture. First, less than two weeks before the election, it was announced that Baumel’s remains had been found and all reports of a deal were denied. Next, the maximum political gain was wrung from this admittedly moving news (and Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, was admonished for daring to intimate that the timing was suspect). Then, after the election victory, the return gesture to Syria was cooked up with Putin on the sly. This information wasn’t released in a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office; rather, it was published in Russia.
It doesn’t stop there: Even the Israeli security cabinet was left in the dark. In fact, the entire procedure does not comply with the protocol specified by law, which requires cabinet approval for the release of prisoners as a diplomatic gesture or other foreign policy considerations. The release was approved in a secretive process, purpose-built by the attorney general with the knowledge of the president.
This wasn’t the first time Netanyahu displayed gross contempt for the decision-making process. Only last month, in the home stretch of the election campaign, he announced that he did not consult his defense minister, military chief of staff and most top defense officials before giving approval for Germany to sell advanced submarines to Egypt. For this he cited “state secrets” whose nature has never been explained.
In this context it’s worth mentioning the talks over the possible return of the two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers that are being held in the Gaza Strip. The cabinet hasn’t officially accepted the recommendations of the Shamgar committee, which called for distinguishing between the release of remains and the release of prisoners, and prohibiting the release of prisoners in exchange for the Israelis’ remains.
In recent years, however, senior Israeli officials have taken a hard line, saying Hamas cannot expect concessions of the type made in the 2011 prisoner swap for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Now, albeit with smaller numbers, we’re returning to the formula of live prisoners in exchange for soldiers’ remains. Hamas is surely taking notes.
The main reason Israel agreed to Putin’s request, alongside the need to maintain good relations with Russia, has to do with the efforts to find the remains of the other two missing soldiers from the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman. The working assumption is that they’re also buried in Syria and that Russian goodwill and, at the very least, a Syrian willingness not to interfere with the searches will be required. In this context, around two weeks ago there were reports, denied by Israel, about the return to Israel of the remains of Mossad spy Eli Cohen. That’s a more difficult goal; the hope of finding the remains of Katz and Feldman seems more realistic.
It’s fairly easy to understand why it was important for Moscow to make the Israeli gesture happen. The return of the two prisoners is needed, and not only to calm Assad. It will show that the road to more deals to return missing soldiers runs through Moscow. No less important is the wider context. Russia is signaling its regional might to Israel and Syria. It’s Russia — not the United States, which announced plans to withdraw the last of its military forces from Syria — that can achieve a negotiated settlement of the problems of both Damascus and Jerusalem.