No be-all or end-all

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff - Haaretz - March 26, 2009 / Nisan 1, 5769

For many long months, presumably, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was preparing for Tuesday's speech, in which he outlined his government's efforts to bring kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit home. Olmert is the only one who knows whether he ever truly intended to pay the full price demanded for Shalit's release.

His live speech to the nation, in which he presented his considerations, was a mixture of matters directly related to the issue ("We have red lines") and empty rhetoric ("We are not a vanquished people" - whoever said we are?). Wednesday's newspapers prominently published the photos of the arch-murderers Israel has refused to release. It seems as though the Shin Bet security service's detailed accounting of the blood spilled by those terrorists, as well as the energetic backing the envoys to Cairo gave to the prime minister's position, have in the meantime tipped the balance of public opinion in Olmert's favor.

Yet, the prime minister has known the names of the "heavyweight" prisoners Hamas wants released for two years now, which signifies that the sides were not conducting practical negotiations for most of the period. Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin's objection to releasing some of the murderers and to the deportation of dozens of others has also been known for quite a while. Advertisement

No significant prisoner-exchange deal has ever been supported by the head of the Shin Bet - by any head of the Shin Bet. It seems Diskin was sent to Cairo so that Olmert would be able to dismiss this swap, too. The invocation that "all security establishment heads" object to the deal is also dubious.

IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in fact said at Tuesday's special cabinet meeting that in the last round, "real negotiations" were conducted about Shalit's release (in other words, we were close to an agreement). Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who supports a deal, remained silent.

Preempting mass protest

The Prime Minister's Bureau, ostensibly basing itself on intelligence assessments, this week lashed out at the damage caused by a number of ministers, first and foremost among them Barak, who visited the Shalit family's protest tent. The bureau insinuated that the intensive familial campaign, the overblown media scrutiny and subversion on the part of politicians were what destroyed the deal. Finance Minister Roni Bar-On has already said so outright. Fortunately, the guilty party, the one responsible for the failure, has been found - not Hamas and its excessive demands, nor Olmert, who inflated expectations with his promises of "a last-minute effort." Only Barak is guilty. Well, maybe also Noam Shalit.

When Israel retreats every couple of months from the absolutely final price it agreed to pay on the previous occasion, Hamas concludes that there is no reason to hurry. Particularly odd was the prolonged hiatus in negotiations, until the end of January, when they were renewed in the wake of Operation Cast Lead.

The claim constantly reiterated by the prime minister and his people is, "We have done everything." With all due respect, this assertion is not exactly convincing, especially considering that until recently, Olmert and his close circle were still unsure whether it was better to focus the final push on bringing Gilad home or on a different achievement altogether - the release of Jonathan Pollard from

life imprisonment

in the U.S..

Olmert's self-defending speech ended with his sending a hug out to the Shalit family, in an attempt to preempt the protest outcry expected for tomorrow, marking Gilad's 1000th day in captivity.

Reading between the lines of reports published in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth this week, one could discern that Olmert's special envoy, Ofer Dekel, is already preparing to publish his memoirs on the negotiation. Trying to distribute a letter to the ministers heading into Tuesday's government meeting, Noam and Aviva Shalit were met with many sealed Volvo windows.

It would be interesting to know to what extent Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has bothered to return their phone calls.