In the 24 hours that led up to a breakthrough in Russian-mediated talks to retrieve an Israeli woman who entered Syria, there have been growing concerns that the affair would turn into an embarrassing mess marring Israel's relations with Russia.
Israel, which convened an unusual cabinet meeting Tuesday on the matter is trying to clean up this mess, and on Thursday, an Israeli plane was sent to Moscow to bring the woman back.
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She crossed the border into Syria on February 2, evading Israeli army observation posts – a failure that the Northern Command is now investigating at the orders of Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.
This is not the first time she has gotten into trouble with the authorities. The woman, who reportedly comes from the religious West Bank settlement of Modi'in Illit, has tried in the past to cross the Gaza border, but was stopped by Israeli soldiers (according to another version, elite naval commando unit soldiers were the ones who prevented her from crossing into the Strip). Her motives were unclear then, as they are now.
Either way, she was arrested by the Syrian army shortly after crossing the border, near one of the villages in the Syrian Golan Heights. The Syrians interrogated her briefly and reached the conclusion that she did not enter Syria to gather intelligence. Then Israel received the following message from Russia: Syria is holding one of your citizens. What are you willing to do to get her back?
This is not the first time that Russia has volunteered, or has been enlisted, for similar attempts of mediation. In April 2019, the remains of the body of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the battle of Sultan Yacoub in Lebanon in 1982, were brought back to Israel after Russian intelligence located his remains in a cemetery in Damascus.
In January 2020, Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman who also holds an American citizenship, was pardoned and returned to Israel after being tried and sentenced in Moscow for 7.5 years over drug charges.
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In both cases, the achievements – worthy as they might be in their own right – were leveraged to promote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party campaign for the election that were held soon after: Only Netanyahu, the campaign stressed, was capable of bringing Israeli citizens and the bodies of fallen soldiers back home thanks to his close ties with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Thursday too, at the official memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown, Netanyahu said once again that “thanks to my personal relationship” with Putin, Baumel’s remains were brought back.
Netanyahu was in the picture from the very beginning, as were Gantz and Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, with the three of them holding talks with their Russian counterparts. Russia’s expectations from Israel have also come up during these talks. Moscow is concerned about the air strikes on convoys travelling from Iraq into Syria. The Russians say that in some cases these convoys are carrying humanitarian aid – though Israel is convinced these convoys are transferring Iranian weapons. The numerous attacks, Moscow says, interfere with the Assad regime’s efforts to retake control of northeastern Syria and stabilize the situation in the region.
Israel works according to an orderly procedure when it needs to retrieve Israeli citizens held in foreign countries – with the main course of action being clarifying which prisoners being held in Israel are relevant for a prisoner exchange deal, and what proceedings are needed to release them.
In this case, there were two prisoners of potential interest to Syria: Diab Kahamuz and Nihal al-Maqt.
Kahamuz is a resident of Ghajar, an Alawite village, near the border Israel-Lebanon border. He was arrested five years ago after smuggling explosive devices into Israel at the services of Hezbollah. Al-Maqt, a Druze woman from the Golan Heights, was convicted of incitement and sentenced to community service. The release of Kahamuz, through a procedure intended for security prisoners, seems to have been what was discussed at Tuesday's cabinet meeting.
But it turns out that Israel was a bit sloppy when doing its homework. Neither Kahamuz nor al-Maqt are interested in being returned to Syria. Kahamuz’s father lives in Lebanon and even though he is a member of the Alawite community, it seems he has never lived in Syria. Al-Maqt is not even doing prison time, and has no interest of leaving her home in the Israeli Golan Heights. Considering the current situation in Syria, after a decade of a disastrous civil war, it's easy to understand them. In the end, it was decided that al-Maqt would be pardoned for her crimes and remain in her home. Another gesture of goodwill was agreed upon too: The return of two Syrian shepherds who recently crossed the border into Israel.
What has complicated matters even more at the last minute is what has been the basic approach of Netanyahu and his people for a long time – contempt and a lack of faith in senior professionals in the government and subsequently keeping them in the dark when handling sensitive matters. In this case, only defense officials were allowed to get involved.
Only on Tuesday, when the dramatic media reports starting coming in about the unusual cabinet meeting, were Justice Ministry officials and other relevant figures finally informed that an Israeli citizen was being held in Syria. And only on Wednesday morning did the discussion start about advancing the proceedings needed to carry out the prisoner swap. This is after the Prime Minister’s Office, Defense Ministry and National Security Council had known about the matter for two weeks.
The issue is not the sensitivity of the negotiations that involve security matters. This seems to be another clear case in which the atmosphere Netanyahu and his people have been nurturing has harmed the functioning of the country and its foreign relations. The results of the jihad declared against “Saladin,” the name of the street in Jerusalem where the offices of the terrible Justice Ministry and attorney general are located, seems to have been felt this time all the way to the Kremlin.
Moscow carried out its part and prepared the ground for another humanitarian prisoner exchange deal. As usual, it has something to gain: It has further established its position as the sole mediator between Israel and Syria, somewhere the Americans have no foothold – and maybe not even any interest.
On Thursday, it looked for a few hours as if the handling of the matter on the Israeli side was delaying the completion of the process. The Syrian bride is willing to return home, but there's a small problem: Nobody remembered to ask the groom if he was interested. National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and the coordinator for POWs and MIAs Yaron Blum returned on Wednesday from Moscow, after what seemed to be a visit meant to put the process back on track.
Despite an apparent solution, the completion of the deal was delayed, certainly not boding well for Israel’s standing in Russian eyes.
The entire affair, according to a defense official, is a “medium-sized incident that will be solved quickly.” Nonetheless, an unnecessary complication was created at the last minute. It’s strange – we would have expected that Israel would have had enough experience in such affairs by now.