Shalit's condition leaves Israel second-guessing delay in his release

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2011 

JERUSALEM — One day after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit returned home after five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip, a deep sense of dissatisfaction settled over Israel Wednesday as questioning began of why it took so long for negotiators to win his release.

The emotion of the second-guessing was heightened by Shalit's obviously fragile physical condition upon his return. He clearly had been kept from sunshine for years. In addition, doctors who are treating him reported that the wounds he suffered when he was captured in 2006 had been "incorrectly treated" while he was a prisoner and that he appeared to have been confined in a manner that prevented him from exercising, adding to his weakness.

Israelis who watched Shalit emerge from his captivity expressed shock at his gaunt and pale form.

"Why did he have to wait this long?" asked Ohad Kerner, one of the activists who had fought for his release.

"From what we are hearing, it seems like maybe he could have come home sooner. It was just that the leaders weren't ready to make a deal," she said.

The Shalits, according to those close to them, also are upset over reports that a deal could have been reached sooner, though they have refrained from criticizing the government publicly.

Others wondered why, if Israeli officials were going to agree to release more than 1,000 prisoners, they hadn't gone ahead and done so years ago as reports surfaced that such a deal had been negotiated before — and rejected.

Questions about whether Israel moved aggressively enough in the Shalit case touched several sensitive nerves here, including the feelings of a large number of Israelis who opposed the prisoner swap because it meant freedom for hundreds of Palestinians convicted of killing their family members in bombings and other attacks.

They also raised uncomfortable accusations that the Israel Defense Forces hadn't made a serious effort to rescue Shalit, one of their own taken from a desert military outpost by a small group of Gaza-based Palestinian militants.

"The IDF never took responsibility for the soldier and did not even set up a team to deal with bringing him back," Ronen Cohen, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence who was deeply involved in the Shalit case, told the Haaretz newspaper this week.

Former Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan acknowledged that a deal similar to the one that brought Shalit home Tuesday had been struck two and half years ago under then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, But Dagan said that he and Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, then head of the Israeli military, had urged Olmert not to go through with the deal because too many Palestinians would go free. Ultimately there was no deal.

Dagan also opposed the most recent deal, calling it a "grave mistake" to release "450 of the worst murderers the IDF ever went after." On Tuesday, 477 Palestinians were freed, about 300 of whom had been serving long prison terms for violent acts against Israelis. Another 550 are to be released sometime in the next two months.

Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt compelled to accept the deal because of fast-changing political developments in Egypt, which served as the go-between in the deal but whose political complexion is unclear with parliamentary elections set to begin Nov. 28.

"It was now or never," said one military intelligence officer who was familiar with details of the Shalit negotiations and who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the arrangements in public.

"If Netanyahu didn't take the current offer, he risked having it on his conscience that he missed the last opportunity to return Shalit," the officer said. "Who knows what Egypt will look like after the elections?"

Cohen, the former military intelligence officer, said that from the beginning the Israeli military had "partial intelligence" that might have allowed it to launch a rescue attempt. But in the weeks after Shalit's capture, Israel sent troops into southern Lebanon and Dan Halutz, then the IDF chief, became "distracted."

Cohen said the Israeli military missed an opportunity to win Shalit's freedom in 2008, when it launched a huge invasion into the Gaza Strip. During the fighting in Gaza, Israeli officials explored the possibility of abducting senior Hamas figures that they could use to bargain for Shalit.

But the opportunity was missed, Cohen said, and after the Gaza operation ended Israel lost the string of intelligence on Shalit's situation and location.

This week's swap, Cohen said, represented a "resounding failure of the IDF. There are no other words to describe it."

The IDF has said little to counter Cohen's claims, except that the government handled the negotiations as well as it could have.

The episode has left few people satisfied.

Writing in the Maariv newspaper, popular columnist Ben Caspit said that if the government was going to exchange 1,000 prisoners for Shalit, it could have done so years ago.

"What will the price be in the next abduction? What will they demand for the next Shalit? Jerusalem? Maybe Bibi himself?" Caspit wrote, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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