For Every Kidnapped Soldier, Israel Should Capture 200 of the Enemy, Says Ex-negotiator

Army Radio plays tape of Lior Lotan bemoaning Israeli weakness in negotiating with Hamas over missing Israelis

Lior Lotan, speaking at a counter-terrorism conference, Sept. 13, 2016
Tomer Appelbaum

For every Israeli soldier kidnapped by enemy forces, Israel should capture 200 of the adversary's soldiers, according to Lior Lotan, who resigned late last week as coordinator tasked with bringing home captive and missing Israelis, after three years on the job.

Bemoaning the dearth of resources to negotiate for the missing Israelis to be brought home, "Israel should fill its wallet", Lotan is heard saying. His view was taped some months ago. The recording was aired Monday morning on Army Radio.

If the enemy holds one of our soldiers, Lotan is heard saying, the war should end with Israel holding 200 of theirs; "if it's two, then it should be two to 400, if three, then 600. That doesn't mean the problems will be solved, but the formula will be different."

His opinion reflects an increasingly accepted view in military circles, that Israel needs more cards to play when its soldiers are captured.

One practice has been to withhold the bodies of Palestinians killed in conflict, and use them as a negotiating card later on. Israel has denied "trading" in dead bodies, officials speaking on the state's behalf have said, including the defense minister during Operation Protective Edge, Moshe Yaalon. However, in prisoner deals, Israel has returned bodies of terrorists and Palestinian fighters.

For instance, during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after six soldiers were killed by a rocket hitting their armored vehicle and Oron Shaul went missing (later declared deceased), Israel buried 18 bodies of Palestinians in Israel. In October, a Palestinian from Gaza was also buried in Israel.

Lotan himself had addressed that practice in the past, saying that such conduct has become the norm: "After every conflict between fighting forces, the sides exchange prisoners and bodies.  That is the norm. Israel and Hizbollah did it too before the Second Lebanon War an afterwards too."

Israel suggested pursuing a similar practice with Hamas, offering to return the bodies of the 19 Hamas members (in total), one of whom participated in kidnapping Lieut. Hadar Goldin in 2014, in exchange for the bodies of Goldin himself and Oron. Hamas declined.

The movement also rejected the Israeli proposal to return dozens of Palestinian civilians who had voluntarily crossed the border into Israel to Gaza, in exchange for Abera Mengistu and Hisham Abu-Sayid, who have been missing in Gaza since 2014 and 2015 respectively after entering the Strip on their own volition.  

Hamas said in response to the suggestion, that it first demanded the release of other Palestinian prisoners, residents of the West Bank, including ones who were arrested for violating the conditions of their release in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Lotan rejected the condition, saying a year ago that these prisoners have "nothing to do with the Gaza Strip or to Operation Protective Edge. Of course we cannot accept a precondition. It would be morally and professionally wrong."

Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Mengistu and Abu-Sayid "are being held very cruelly by Hamas." (A third Israeli who reportedly crossed into Gaza, Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima, is not defined as captive.)

Lotan had spearheaded Israeli efforts to regain the civilians and the bodies of the fallen Israeli soldiers for the last three years. Sources in the know say he reigned last Thursday in frustration at the negotiations with Hamas remaining deadlocked, and because he was given so little room to maneuver.

The families of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin reacted bitterly to Lotan's resignation, accusing the government of doing absolutely nothing despite its promises to regain the two soldiers' bodies.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman replied to the families that Israel must not repeat the mistake it made in the deal to regain Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive by Hamas from 2006 to 2011: Israel made too many concessions. "In that deal, 1,027 terrorists were released, including murderers and those who dispatched them, including Mahmoud Qawasmeh, who was released to the Strip and who financed the kidnapping of the three boys,” he said, referring to three yeshiva students who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank in 2014.

Among the others released, Lieberman noted, was Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in the Strip. Sinwar, said Lieberman, is now laying down tough conditions and blocking a deal.