Gaza Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s statement that Hamas is willing to offer easier terms in negotiations with Israel for the return of missing and captive Israelis, still does not ensure a successful conclusion to the affair. Sinwar has so far given no details as to what concessions he intends to make and what his red lines are. But it seems that Hamas is now prepared to separate a general ceasefire agreement from a prisoner swap, and in return for the release of women, elderly and sick prisoners held by Israel, he would agree to convey information about missing and captive Israelis in Gaza.
If such a deal does come about, the next stage would be for Hamas to condition the transfer of captive Israelis and the bodies of Israeli soldiers on the release of all the prisoners, or at least of those incarcerated since the release of prisoners done in exchange for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. Israel believes the timing of Sinwar’s declaration is connected to pressure on Hamas to bring about the immediate release of all the prisoners held by Israel, out of fear they may contract the coronavirus. That is also the reason he defined such a deal as a humanitarian act and not as a political negotiation.
Support for the likelihood of such a deal might be found in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Israel’s coordinator for the return of the missing and captive Israelis, in cooperation with National Security Council and the defense establishment are ready to act constructively with the aim of bringing back the bodies of soldiers and of missing civilians and end this matter, and call for immediate dialogue through intermediaries.” It seems that Russia’s involvement as a mediator following a conversation between the head of the Hamas political wing, Ismail Haniyeh and Michael Bogdanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy on the Middle East and Africa, could also jump-start a deal, and even bring one about.
Israel should examine Sinwar’s proposal seriously, out of a sincere intention to end an affair that is delaying further discussions on a ceasefire agreement. Netanyahu, who according to Hamas has not yet delivered his response to the proposal, can and must adopt a humanitarian approach, and not use the proposal as diplomatic or political leverage. If an opportunity now exists to use the coronavirus threat as a pretext for indirect talks with Hamas, with the goal of returning the prisoners and remains of missing soldiers, and even promoting a long-term ceasefire, it should not be missed.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.