Netanyahu's Hostage Envoy Opposes Stricter Guidelines for Prisoner Swaps

Col. (res.) Lior Lotan says adoption of rules by security cabinet would make it harder to get Israelis released from Gaza.

AFP / Haaretz archive

The prime minister’s special envoy for hostages and missing persons opposes the security cabinet approving a report that calls for stricter guidelines with regard to prisoner swaps.

The report recommends avoiding the mass release of prisoners in exchange for Israeli abductees or prisoners, like the 2011 release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians.

The report was originally filed in 2012, but the security cabinet is expected to consider its recommendations in the near future.

Col. (res.) Lior Lotan told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he was against the recommendations, because the adoption of a stricter policy would make it harder to continue negotiations with Hamas over the return of Israeli civilians currently missing in the Gaza Strip.

Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed went missing after crossing into the Gaza Strip last year, while the bodies of soldiers Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul were not recovered during the Gaza war in 2014.

The committee also recommends that living prisoners not be released in exchange for the bodies of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

The panel was headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, who was appointed by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak around the time the Shalit swap was finalized. The committee submitted its conclusions in early 2012.

The recommendations have not been officially released and are defined as classified.

Although the report was submitted four years ago, the prime minister has not officially accepted it and has refrained from bringing it to either the security cabinet or full cabinet for discussion. However, a discussion is set to be held in the security cabinet soon following calls by a number of ministers.

Political and public debate over negotiations for the release of the missing civilians and the soldiers’ remains was sparked by the reconciliation agreement Israel signed with Turkey in June.

Some ministers opposed the agreement, demanding that it be conditioned on Turkey’s intervening with Hamas to return Goldin and Shaul’s bodies and the two missing Israeli citizens.

Ilan Assayag

Lotan’s opposition to the report is based on professional considerations. If stricter guidelines are imposed on prisoner swaps, it will be much harder to close gaps between the sides, especially given Hamas’ demand to release dozens of terrorists.

Although Hamas has held Goldin and Shaul’s remains for two years, there are no direct talks between the sides. Furthermore, Israel believes Hamas’ opening demands will not even allow indirect talks to begin.

The Goldin and Shaul families also oppose the Shamgar Committee’s recommendations, for the same reasons as Lotan.

The Goldin family said last week: “Adopting the report means the end of the people’s army. When there are prisoners, laws should not be changed [to] tie the government’s hands.”

According to Lotan, he advised Netanyahu that the rule of proportionality in such deals is important. But the actual criteria should be determined during the talks themselves, to allow the state flexibility in its conduct toward the enemy. Putting sweeping rules in place ahead of time would put Israel in an inferior position in any negotiations with Hamas, he believes.