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Netanyahu in tight spot amid Hamas prisoner swap debate

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Israel must not “repeat the mistakes made with the Shalit deal," namely releasing hundreds of Hamas operatives in the framework of a prisoner-exchange deal.

Almost six years have passed since the release of Gilad Shalit in October 2011, a saga that generated a national trauma that is deeply engraved in the souls of many Israelis. Unfortunately, the same story seems to be slowly repeating itself.

Shalit, a member of an Israeli tank crew, was abducted by Hamas in 2006 and held captive for five years. Ironically, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, after negotiating with the terrorists, released more than 1,000 Hamas terrorists and murderers in order to bring Shalit home. This was despite the fact he had invested great efforts throughout his political career in preaching against negotiating with terrorists.

Shalit had spent five years incommunicado without any visits. During this time, Israeli society was torn between the masses of demonstrators who demanded that the state do everything to bring Shalit home, and opponents of a deal, mainly right-wingers, who demanded that murderers not be released in exchange for the soldier. They argued that a large proportion of the released terrorists would obviously return to the circle of terror.

On the heels of the Shalit deal, Netanyahu established a special committee, headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, to set basic rules with which to conduct similar negotiations in the future. In 2012, the committee submitted a detailed report that recommended to severely stiffen the conditions for conducting negotiations for the return of abducted or imprisoned Israeli soldiers, and set out a detailed outline that severely limits the government’s freedom of action in freeing terrorists. For example, the report states that Israel should be willing to give up the bodies of terrorists it holds for the bodies of Israel Defense Force (IDF) fighters, but should not release living terrorists for an Israeli corpse. Though he was the one to order the report, Netanyahu did not bring it to the government for ratification, thus the document remains nonbinding.

Now the story is returning. This time, it is not about imprisoned or abducted soldiers but about the bodies of two Israeli combat soldiers: Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin. Both were killed in the course of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, but their bodies were abducted by Hamas and have been held since then in the Gaza Strip.

It turned out that Hamas has no qualms about wheeling and dealing over bodies, and the organization demands the release of terrorists in exchange for the bodies of the fighters — just to start the negotiations. Israel refuses. Recently, the families of Goldin and Shaul, who had kept a low profile in the last two years, transitioned into an open struggle. On Aug. 24, retired IDF Col. Lior Lotan quit his role as the prime minister's coordinator for Israel’s prisoners of war and those missing in action. Lotan gave up on reaching a breakthrough for retrieving Goldin and Shaul. On Aug. 27, the Goldin family convened a press conference in which they called Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman weak and a coward. If we add to the pot the fact that Goldin was the nephew of the previous defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, then we receive the Gordian knot that Netanyahu now faces.

It is believed that Hamas holds, in addition to the bodies of the two IDF fighters, three Israeli civilians who crossed the border of their own volition in recent years. The families of these civilians are also demanding that Israel take decisive action to return their loved ones. The one who is blocking negotiations with Hamas on this issue is Liberman. He demands that the government adopt the Shamgar report, despite its delay in doing so, in order for Israel not to “repeat the mistakes made with the Shalit deal,” in his words.

According to Liberman, 202 of the terrorists released in the Shalit deal have been rearrested by Israel for returning to terror. In addition, seven Israelis were murdered with the direct or indirect involvement of these terrorists. Liberman swore that this scenario would not repeat itself on his watch and has now found himself on a collision course with the families. Netanyahu, who is well-aware of the power held by bereaved families on Israeli society, is trying to keep a low profile, but does not dare enter into a conflict with Liberman on this issue. This is especially true now that Netanyahu is under siege by two hefty criminal investigations and perhaps additional ones in the future.

There are even more variables in this equation that further complicate the situation. As opposed to the Shalit family, who demanded in its time that the government comply with Hamas’ demands of releasing the terrorists and returning their son home alive, the Goldin family does not have a similar demand; perhaps even the reverse is true. Goldin’s parents feel that it is forbidden to release murderers in exchange for the body of their son. Instead they demand the government increase the pressure on Hamas and the Gaza Strip to force the organization to return the body by its own initiative. They demand that Israel should stop returning the bodies of Hamas terrorists that were killed in the course of carrying out attacks in Israel, worsen the conditions of Hamas prisoners incarcerated in Israel and halt family visits to jailed terrorists in Israel. Also, they demand that Israel not assist Hamas in Gaza and instead severely intensify the siege on the organization. Ironically, their opinions are close to those of Liberman regarding this last issue: Over the last year, Liberman has been torpedoing all the new suggestions of many sources within the government to bring humanitarian relief into the Gaza Strip and lessen the heavy pressure on Gaza.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is trying to run between the raindrops on this dilemma, without paying a political or public price. On Aug. 2, the Goldin family complained that Netanyahu has not found time to meet with them. Netanyahu knows that there will not be the kind of public outcry and protest now as there was for Shalit because the present case is about bodies, not a soldier who is alive. On the other hand, the Goldin family belongs to the religious Zionist stream, part and parcel of Netanyahu’s electoral base and the hard kernel of Netanyahu’s supporters among Israel’s traditional right. Should the Goldins continue their protest, this can inflict significant damage on Netanyahu in the public opinion, and in his traditional bastions of support.

Netanyahu could formulate a diplomatic plan if he only had a well-formulated, strategic policy in regard to the Gaza Strip in general. The problem is that no such strategy exists. On Aug. 28, Netanyahu met with Antonio Guterres, the new United Nations secretary-general. Guterres has begged the prime minister to alleviate the situation in the Gaza Strip. But Israel still has not decided what exactly it wants from Gaza and what exactly is its policy vis-a-vis the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip.

On the one hand, Israel holds Gaza above the water via more than 1,000 truckloads of provisions it sends from the Israeli side, and through other means. On the other hand, Israel continues to keep in close contact with Egypt and with former Fatah senior member Mohammed Dahlan — who is reportedly close to Liberman — in an effort to try to formulate an alternative to Hamas in Gaza.

When one body has several hands that move in opposite directions, it is no wonder that the head does not really know what to do.

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