Woman posting note on board dedicated to Schalit.(photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Forgotten Soldier

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Gilad Schalit isn’t home yet because no one wants to give Hamas a victory.

Who really wants Gilad Schalit released, except his family? Apparently no one. “The State of Israel is doing everything possible to bring Gilad home.”

Come on, who are they kidding? After four and half years, a few kilometers from the border in an area which is under our complete external control, sits an IDF soldier, one of us, one of our children, sent to defend us, in captivity by our enemy with no real sign that he will be coming home in the near future.

Before I start on the Prime Minister’s Office, let me assign blame where it really belongs – on Hamas. But criticism of Hamas is not going to pressure it to change its demands for Schalit’s release.

He could have been home a long time ago; the price tag has been known for more than four years, and has not changed. I personally received the first list of Hamas’s demands, which I passed on to the Prime Minister’s Office, and the price remains today as it was then – in fact, as I will show, Hamas has made some compromises, but still Schalit remains in captivity.

Hamas even indicated a willingness to conduct direct secret talks to conclude a deal – I know this because I delivered the request. The response: We have an agreed-upon mediator – a German former intelligence officer – and everything must go through him.

LET’S BE brutally honest – Schalit isn’t home yet because no one wants to give Hamas a victory. Egypt, which has provided the umbrella for the negotiations, has the Muslim Brotherhood to worry about. The recent elections there were a clear demonstration of the political manipulations the regime is willing to undertake to prevent any kind of political victory for Hamas’s elder brother. Jordan, like Egypt, doesn’t want to see celebrations of Hamas’s success in bringing about the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority work overtime to crush the influence of Hamas in the West Bank. Hundreds of prisoners released to Hamas is perceived as a direct threat to the Abbas regime.

The Americans don’t want a Hamas victory, and why should they care about a single IDF soldier anyway?

Ehud Barak, the leader of the dying Labor Party, certainly doesn’t want to be perceived as the man who gave in to Hamas. Ehud Olmert didn’t want that either, even though his negotiator almost closed a deal.

Who in the government wants to gain the reputation of being soft on terror? Our prime minister has certainly calculated the political costs of a deal and has concluded that “business as usual” is much better than paying the price to bring Schalit home.

What does “business as usual” mean? That we will continue to lie over and over again that “we are doing everything possible to bring Schalit home.”

We will continue to make speeches about the high moral code of the IDF, and how we don’t leave any soldier behind. We will continue to whisper “we shouldn’t discuss this issue in public because the negotiations are secret and the price will rise.”

We will continue to employ a former senior Mossad official and pay him more than NIS 300,000 a year, plus a team to work with him so that we can justify our claim that we will not leave any stone unturned.

There are no negotiations taking place. The German mediator, Dr. Gerhard Conrad, has basically stopped trying, knowing that the process is stuck almost where it was more than a year ago. Egyptian security officials claim they could conclude a deal, but no one will appoint them to take full charge, and without that they will play only a passive role. (If they can deliver as they claim, why won’t they? Because they don’t really want to.)

A senior Norwegian official who I tried to engage in mediation on a number of occasions, and was willing to do so (on the condition that both sides requested his involvement) says that while Hamas was willing for him to try, he had to coordinate with Egypt, which was not interested in someone else stepping in, and Israel simply refused.

IN JULY 2010 a letter from a senior Hamas official was delivered to Conrad through a UN official in Gaza, after its contents had been authorized by Hamas strongman – and the person believed to be holding Schalit – Ahmed Jaabari, in which Hamas agreed to moderate some of its demands. I received a copy and delivered it to the prime minister and the minister of defense. Jaabari was willing to accept that a certain number of prisoners on the Hamas list would be removed, and that Hamas would agree that about 30 of the West Bank prisoners could be released to Gaza or sent abroad. Israel’s position was that more than 10 names on the Hamas list be removed entirely, and that more than 120 West Bank prisoners be expelled to Gaza or abroad.

On the basis of the letter and other indications, Conrad tried to renew the process, but came to a dead end on the Israeli side. I recently spoke with that senior Hamas official, who continues to state that Jaabari is now willing to accept even more deportees to Gaza and abroad, but Israel continues to refuse to enter serious negotiations.

Without declarations, without ceremonies, without a funeral and a flag over a casket, Gilad Schalit is nonetheless being treated as a soldier who fell in defense of his country; it’s much easier to quell the national conscience than to make the tough decisions that no one wants to make.

The problem is that Schalit is still alive, he is still a soldier, he is still one of our sons, and our conscience should not allow us to conduct business as usual for even one more day.

Abbas and the PA will survive the momentary Hamas victory. Egypt and Jordan will not collapse if hundreds of prisoners are released to Hamas. Our security forces are able to deal with any released prisoner who really presents a threat. The IDF will be free to take care of Hamas’s military wing after Schalit’s release without fearing that its actions will lead to his death. What will not survive is the moral code of the IDF, the covenant between the state, the people and the army – and our good conscience.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin