Two days before Gilad Schalit came home I wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu:
“I want to praise you for the demonstration of courage and leadership that you showed in your decision to support the secret back channel that I ran with Hamas people. In my first conversation with David Meidan he told me that he agreed to take on the job when he heard from you that despite your principled objection to a prisoner exchange, to negotiations with terrorists, and to releasing murderers, you said that there was no other way to bring Gilad home and that the time had come to do so…Mr. Prime Minister, you have proven your leadership… May we never be forced to deal with situations like this in the future. Now we must dedicate all of our efforts to advance real peace with our neighbors.”
Netanyahu did not deserve that praise. In hindsight it is clear that he was acting out of political expediency. I assumed that once there was no longer an Israeli soldier captive in Gaza, there might be a chance to work on changing the reality on the ground in Gaza. I also hoped that with David Meidan, who was then still in the Mossad we might be able to develop a secret direct back channel, this time with President Mahmoud Abbas for the purpose of negotiating peace. I had no illusions that we could negotiate peace with Hamas, but I did think it could be possible to negotiate a long-term ceasefire, or Hudna as they called it.
Days after the release of Schalit, Ghazi Hamad and I began drafting a proposal for a long-term ceasefire. Our negotiations on the Hudna went through four drafts. I presented the drafts to senior UN officials and Egyptian intelligence officers. I also went to Abbas to ask him if an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire was in his interest. Abbas responded yes, definitely, because he would not be able to negotiate with Israel if Gaza was constantly under attack from Israel.
On May 1, 2012 I met with Defense Minister Barak and presented him with the draft of the agreement. Barak was skeptical about the possibility of Hamas upholding a ceasefire agreement. Nonetheless Barak created a committee of officers from the IDF military intelligence. There were also representatives from the Prime Minister’s office and the Shabak. I was not a member of the committee, but two members of the committee told me about the discussions and the final recommendations.
The committee recommended not entering into any formal arrangements with Hamas. I thought that this was the wrong decision. I believed that Israel should test the ability and political will to uphold the long term ceasefire agreement. The committee said Israel should not make agreements with Hamas, this would only strengthen them. Israel needs to do only one thing: build deterrence! Deterrence is a nice concept, but it is not a mathematical equation. How many people do you have to kill? How many homes have to be erased? Since 2008, I have claimed that Hamas which sanctifies death and sees dying a martyr for Palestine and for Al Quds is a fulfillment of life’s purpose, it is, therefore, impossible to create deterrence.
By October 2012 periods between the temporary ceasefires were getting shorter and the intensity of the rocket fire increased. I phoned Ghazi and suggested that we renew our efforts to achieve a long term ceasefire. He agreed. This time Ghazi proposed that he would draft a text and would begin showing it to people in Gaza and the Hamas leadership. As he was making progress I reported to senior officials in the IDF and to the prime minister’s office. I contacted Egyptian General Nader el A’aser and spoke to him about our ceasefire proposals. I was in Cairo from November 8 -12, 2012 and met with Nader several times. I returned to Israel on November 12, 2012 when a rocket from Gaza hit Israel. I immediately spoke with Ghazi and Nader and they sent back messages saying that Hamas was taking care of the situation on the ground so that there would be no escalation. On November 14, Ghazi called me in the morning. He told me that Mashal, Abu Marzouk and other leaders outside and in Gaza had seen the draft ceasefire agreement and approved it. He told me that he would be seeing Jaabri that morning. He said that he would send me the draft after seeing Jaabri. Later that day Israel assassinated Ahmad Jaabri and with his death, went our attempts to reach a long-term ceasefire.
In parallel I began working on creating a secret direct back channel between Abbas and Netanyahu. A deal between Netanyahu and the PLO leadership would firmly secure the support of about seventy percent of Israeli society. My hopes that Netanyahu would lead us toward peace were based on my good relationship with David Meidan who would enable me to have a channel to pass messages directly on to the prime minister. Dr. Mahmoud al Habbash, then PA Minister for Religious Affairs organized a meeting for me and himself with Abbas on January 31, 2012. The following is the summary of the meeting that I wrote (in Hebrew) and sent to Netanyahu:
I opened the meeting by thanking the president for agreeing to meet me. I spoke a few words about the secret direct back channel talks with Hamas on Schalit, and I argued that a key component to the success of those talks was their totally secret nature. We were able to conduct a direct secret back channel for six months without any leaks. Abbas agreed without any hesitation that the only way to succeed in negotiations on a permanent settlement is a direct secret back channel. He said that if Prime Minister Netanyahu would agree to a direct secret back channel, Abbas said that within 48 hours he and/or his emissaries would show up for those talks. Our conversation went into the essence of negotiations. We spoke of the need to delineate borders between the two states. Abbas spoke of his deep commitment to true peace and about his daily struggle against terrorism. He said he agrees that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized. He said he understands the needs for Israel’s security. He said that he cannot accept the permanent presence of Israeli soldiers on the eastern border of the Palestinian state, but he does not oppose the idea of an Israeli military presence within a multilateral force. I asked him to relate to the issue of incitement. He said the PA opposes the killing of Jews. Abbas said, “Incitement—yes, we have it. I admit, we are guilty, we are against it but not enough. Under Bush we had agreed to have a trilateral committee with the Americans against incitement. I propose that we now reestablish this committee. Actions against incitement should be taken on both sides.”
In summarizing our conversation, Abbas said “We must not miss the chance for peace. I’m ready and I want to do it with Netanyahu because I know that he will bring all of Israel with him.” I asked him if he would bring the agreement, what would happen with Hamas and Gaza. He said, “This will be our problem,” and he is convinced that the Palestinians in Gaza will not forgo the possibility of enjoying real peace. They will force the agreement on the regime there, and that is how we will bring about real Palestinian unity.
Abbas was open, direct and I felt that he related to me as someone who could be entrusted to deliver messages to Netanyahu and to push forward toward the secret direct back channel of negotiations that I proposed. I was far less confident in my ability to get the message across to Netanyahu and to convince him to accept the Abbas offer. Netanyahu rejected the initiative and refused to meet with Abbas. I tried to appeal to Netanyahu through his national security advisor, Yaacov Amidror. I spoke to several ministers in his government but got no traction. Three times I presented to Netanyahu proposals from Abbas after direct meetings with him to conduct negotiations in a secret back channel and three times Netanyahu refused.
Do I have regrets about my role in the Schalit deal. Absolutely no. The Schalit deal should have been the very last time that Israeli and Hamas should have needed to negotiate prisoners and hostages. Yehya Sinwar was not the problem then and he is not the problem now. In the absence of peace and the continuation of the occupation and the economic siege on Gaza, with continuous rounds of violence, there are tens of thousands of potential Yehya Sinwars growing up every day in Palestine. After each round of warfare with Israel, Hamas recruited its new cadets in the Nukhba (Elite) force from bereaved families. They were given the promise of paradise and revenge and none of them were ever afraid of fighting and dying for their cause.
I am often presented in the media as the “architect of the Schalit deal”. I was not, the deal was placed on the table by the Egyptian Intelligence in December 2006. It took five years before Israel and Hamas were prepared to accept it. Gilad Schalit probably would not have been brought home in October 2011 if not for my secret direct back channel with Ghazi Hamad – a man who is now well known to the public because of his interview on Lebanese television in which he justified October 7.
Another month in captivity would have led to Schalit’s death, according to Israeli doctors he was suffering from acute vitamin D deficiency which led to his inability to digest his food. The government of Israel supported the deal in a vote of 26 to 3, including the support of the Prime Minister, the Head of Mossad, the Head of Shabak, the Chief of Police and the Chief of Staff of the Army. Israel held firm to its ethos of not leaving anyone behind enemy lines and gained the admiration of the entire world. The deal included the release of more than 300 prisoners who had killed Israelis, including four who were responsible for killing my wife’s cousin Sasson Nuriel. Between October 2011 until April 2013, fourteen of them were re-imprisoned by Israel. In 2014, after the murder of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel, Israel rearrested an additional 68 of the Hamas prisoners released in phase one of the deal. This point is an important one regarding any future prisoner releases.
My assessment today is that the only way of getting all of the 136 Israeli hostages home is through an agreement with Hamas. From my conversations with Hamas since the war began on October 7, I understand that the only deal acceptable to them is the end of the war, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and all of the hostages in exchange for all of the prisoners. This is a huge victory for Hamas, but it must be a short-lived victory. The war can wait, the hostages cannot. Israel can take care of Sinwar and the others in the same way it dealt with many of the Hamas leaders over the years (Yassin, Rantisi, Abu Shanab, Jaabri, and more). Prisoners released can be rearrested – Israel has done that also in the past. Hostages who are alive and might be killed before being freed cannot be saved if they are not brought home now. Military pressure might work, I don’t think so, in fact, I believe that the military pressure will result in the killing of more hostages. Hamas has the upper hand and they are not known for making compromises on their demands. This is the reality that we have to face if we are to remain true to our ethos of not leaving anyone behind.
The writer has dedicated his life to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He has negotiated with Hamas for 17 years. He is now the Middle East Director for ICO – International Communities Organization, a UK based NGO.