If Olmert doesn’t agree to release 450 terrorists, every Israeli soldier will know that his government will not go the distance to bring him home.
During this festive Pessah holiday of freedom my thoughts, like so many thousands of others, have been with Gilad Schalit and his family. Held in captivity somewhere in Gaza for 667 days, there is still no clear sign in sight that his release is imminent. Why has it taken so long to secure his release? For one, we are dealing with a political-Islamic-radical movement that while willing and even anxious to negotiate his release, is not willing to negotiate directly, even in a secret back channel. Although kidnapped by what are apparently three separate groups, Hamas has been charged with the negotiations, pretty much since the beginning of the negotiating process. Hamas issued its demands very soon after the abduction of Schalit. The only compromise that Hamas has shown since that time concerns the release of information on his welfare and actual proof that Gilad is alive and well.
Initially Hamas demanded the release of all Palestinian women and minors in Israeli prisons, numbering some 450, in exchange for information. Having been directly involved in the negotiations prior to the appointment of Ofer Dekel by Ehud Olmert, I can say that Hamas was convinced to release a sign of life without receiving anything in exchange, mainly because it was a way to prove that there actually was a channel for negotiations that had a direct connection to the people holding Schalit. On September 9, 2006, 75 days after his abduction, a hand-written letter from Gilad finally reached the hands of the Egyptian mediators who at that time were still based in Gaza. Hamas was led to understand that there would be some kind of confidence-building measure undertaken by Israel following the release of that letter. On September 12, 2006 it was announced that an Israeli military court had ordered the release of 16 Hamas politicians being held since the kidnapping.
It is not clear if this order had been initiated by Olmert in response to the letter from Schalit. At the end of the day, the court order was reversed and none of the Hamas politicians were released at that time. The captors of Schalit immediately passed on a message (to me) that Israel was not taking the situation seriously and was in fact endangering the life of Schalit.
THE VERY first messages that I was requested to deliver to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert concerning Schalit included Hamas demands for a package deal that would include a full bilateral cease-fire and the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. To the best of my knowledge, those demands have not changed in the past 667 days and to the best of my assessment they will not change. It took quite some time, but Hamas did also eventually release a list of names of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons.
Recently I did receive some indication that Hamas might be willing to lessen the number (not significantly) but not what they call the “quality” of the prisoners, if the package deal is completed. Now, the package that they are talking about includes not only a full bilateral cease-fire for Gaza and the West Bank but also the opening of the Rafah border with Egypt and at least one of the crossings between Gaza and Israel (most likely Karni) and the prisoner exchange. Israel has been carrying on the negotiations through the Egyptians (mainly), trying to change the criteria of which prisoners could be released.
Numerous attempts to come up with new kinds of criteria and definitions have been suggested by Israel to the Hamas through the Egyptians. A non-Egyptian negotiator who had been involved in the mediation attempts told me that the entire discussion is ridiculous. Israel has been talking about things like “how much blood they have on their hands, or whose blood they have on their hands, or if the blood goes up to their wrists or up to their elbows.” Hamas’ response, directed to me both from Damascus and from Gaza on at least five separate occasions, has been “Israel is not being serious about the negotiations – apparently they don’t want Schalit to be released.” Each time I transferred messages back to the Israeli side I was told by official Israelis that those messages are part of the negotiations, a means of applying more pressure on Israel.
Today, 667 days after the abduction of Schalit, we are no closer to an agreement than we were at the beginning (unless of course the work of Jimmy Carter proves to be successful). Hamas has not changed its demands, and it will not change its demands. IN MY assessment, Hamas will not release Schalit without a cease-fire agreement. They perceive Schalit to be the life insurance policy that they are holding for the Hamas leaders in Gaza. They will not give up that policy without having a cease-fire in place. They demand a cease-fire in the West Bank as well because they assess that if there are Hamas and other leaders killed in the West Bank the cease-fire in Gaza will immediately breakdown as well. They are demanding a policy of economic revival because with the continuation of the economic siege on Gaza a cease-fire won’t hold as well. There is a package deal on the table.
In the first stage Israel will have to release some 450 Palestinians from Israeli prison. The majority of them are considered to be hard-core terrorists. Many of them are veterans and already senior citizens who have been sitting in prison for many years, but many other are young and their hands are drenched in Jewish blood. This is the price for the release of Schalit. It might be possible that Israel will not pay this price.
It could be possible that Olmert believes that the price is too high to pay. It may very well be that Olmert does not have the political courage or political ability to pay such a heavy price. I would estimate that Schalit will remain in captivity as long as that price is not paid. His fate could end up like that of Ron Arad.
If Israel had a military option for releasing Schalit, they would have played that a long time ago. The other side of the price tag, if not paid, is the knowledge that every Israeli soldier will take into battle with him that in the end of the day, the Israeli government will not do everything possible to bring him home, if God forbid, he falls into captivity. We can only wonder what that will do to the motivation of soldiers to enlist in combat units.
A deal for Schalit’s release could be completed in a relatively short period of time – it could have been done a long time ago as well. If Israel is not willing to pay the known price, it is unlikely that Schalit will come home at any time in the near future. It is, by no doubt, a very tough decision, but it is time for Olmert to make it.
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.