Encountering Peace: What Olmert has to complete before exiting
Ehud Olmert did the right thing by deciding not to participate in the Kadima primaries. His premiership has been filled with critical errors for which there is a political price to pay. His lack of popularity is not simply a result of the many suspicions of corruption but of bad decisions and lack of performance on many of the issues that he promised the public that he would target
Olmert still has some time left in office to correct some of his mistakes and to close some issues which there is a moral responsibility on his shoulders to complete.
The number one issue is bringing Gilad Schalit home. I have been involved in the behind the scenes talks on this issue since a few days after his abduction on June 25, 2006. After dozens of phone conversations with various people in Gaza, on July 22, 2006 I was contacted by my interlocutors from Hamas offering a package deal in exchange for Schalit. It included a full cease-fire and a prisoner exchange - the terms being the same as we know today. I transferred the message to Olmert via a close relative of his. I received an answer several hours later stating that before anything, Hamas must produce a sign of life from Schalit. Olmert further asserted that Israel would not negotiate with terrorists.
From July 22 to September 9, I continued to carry on daily contacts with the Hamas people in Gaza and Damascus to get that sign of life. I was informed by Olmert's relative that Israel was sure he was alive - the main reason for the "sign of life" was to prove that there was a channel which could produce results. On September 9, with my direct involvement, a handwritten letter from Gilad was delivered to the Egyptian representatives in Gaza proving that he was alive and that there was a channel through which negotiations could be conducted.
On August 15, 2006 I received a fax from Hamas in Gaza with a list of its demands for the release of Schalit. That evening the newly appointed "point man" for the prisoner release negotiations, Ofer Dekel, traveled to Hila in the North to meet the Schalit family. I sent that fax from Hamas to Noam Schalit to present to Dekel. Several days later I handed Dekel the hard copy of the fax.
The Hamas demands have not changed since. It did take some additional six months before Hamas produced its list of names of prisoners that it demanded be released, but its conditions have not changed, nor will they change in any substantial way, at least as far as I can assess.
HAMAS WAS ready to enter into a cease-fire in July 2006. Israel rejected that offer then and instead waited for two years before agreeing. During those two years, thousands of Kassam rockets were shot at the innocent civilians living around the Gaza Strip. Since the abduction of Schalit, some 1,100 Gazans have been killed by Israeli security forces. Gaza was placed under full economic and military siege, and in June 2007 Gaza fell to complete control by Hamas. During this entire period, the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have assessed over and over again that there is no military option for releasing Schalit without him and many others being killed.
Every time I read in the newspapers that negotiations over Schalit have been frozen, I almost laugh. What negotiations? There is nothing to negotiate over, except perhaps on the margins. Maybe Hamas will agree that some of the more difficult Palestinian prisoners to release be sent to Gaza for a limited period instead of to the West Bank. Maybe Hamas will remove a few specific names from the list in exchange for increasing the number of prisoners. These are all minor factors.
I have been asked over and over by Hamas representatives in Gaza and in Damascus if Olmert will pay the price. I have explained over and over how difficult it is for any prime minister to pay such a high price. The Egyptian mediators have asked me to propose ideas how to advance the negotiations. I have sent many ideas and many suggestions. The bottom line remains the same: Hamas is willing to wait until Israel pays the full price it demands.
NOW IT is up to Olmert. No doubt there are great risks when Israel releases more than 1500 Palestinian prisoners. The biggest risk may not actually be releasing convicted terrorists and murderers, but releasing the Hamas parliamentarians who will then enable the convening of the Palestinian Legislative Council and declare the Abbas-Fayad government null and void. They could also act to hold new elections or to block new elections, for Palestinian president and parliament. The entire deal will strengthen Hamas's position throughout the Middle East. This is not only difficult for Israel, it poses significant difficulties for Egypt as well, as the Egyptian mediators have told me several times.
All of this is quite true; nonetheless, Olmert has a moral responsibility to bring Gilad Schalit home. He was abducted on his "watch," and before Olmert leaves the Prime Minister's Office he must bring him home. Domestic political concerns should be off of the list of considerations in making the decision to pay the price for Schalit's release. He has to face his own conscience and to continue to look the Schalit family, and in fact all of us, in the eyes and say: "I did everything possible to bring Gilad home."
It is probably too late for Olmert to make good on most of his other promises (removing outposts, freezing settlement building, reaching an agreement with Abbas, cleaning up government, election reform, etc.), it is not too late for him to bring Gilad Schalit home.
The writer is co- CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.