The truth is that Israel has failed miserably in all prisoner swap agreements since the 1985 Jibril deal, for a simple reason: We are negotiating on one single issue, while the other side holds all the cards. The other side is indifferent whereas we are eager. A bad result is inevitable.
Appointing committees like the Shamgar Committee to set supreme principles, or electing the best person as the POWs and MIAs coordinator, won’t help. The only way to succeed is by creating a package deal in which several issues are discussed, a prisoner exchange being only one of those issues.
In 2009, at the end of Operation Cast Lead, Israel was under international pressure to open the crossings with Gaza and send in trucks with food and equipment. Israel should have said at the time: We are sensitive to humanitarian issues, but to all humanitarian issues. We will negotiate with Hamas on two issues—the extent of opening the crossings and a prisoner exchange.
Had we done that, we would have created a balanced situation. We were stressed over kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and Hamas—which is not just a terror organization, but also the government in Gaza—was stressed out over the crossings. We would have shown some flexibility on the first issue, and the other side would have had to show some flexibility on the other issue. It didn’t happen then and it isn’t happening now either.
In general, package deals are the right way to solve any dispute. Let’s assume Israel is negotiating with someone, a friend or an enemy, how to divide a certain cake. The negotiation ends with a 50:50 split. The Israeli government will have a problem explaining how it agreed to give the other side 50 percent even though Israel is in the rightg, is smarter and stronger. It will have trouble approving such an agreement.
Now let’s assume we’re negotiating the division of two cakes, a cheese cake and a chocolate cake. At the conclusion of the negotiation, we end up with only one-quarter of the cheese cake but three-quarters of the chocolate cake. Allegedly, this case is similar to the previous one, as the negotiation ended with a 50:50 split. But there’s a big difference here. Because the negotiation involved two cakes, the government could say: It’s true that we only got one-quarter of the cheesecake, but it’s small and not very tasty, so we decided to generously give up three-quarters of that cake.
The chocolate cake, on the other hand, really is an important cake. We insisted and forced the other side to give us three-quarters of it. So at the end of the day, we are the big winners in this deal. The other side will present the same argument, only about the cheesecake, and everyone will be happy: They managed to both finalize a deal and present their respective populations with a victory.
When only a single issue is discussed, it’s always a “zero sum game.” When several issues are discussed, it turns out that each side has a different list of priorities: What we see as the most important thing is not as important to the other side, and the other way around.
In order to reach a “package agreement” with the Gaza government, we must first of all acknowledge the fact that Gaza has long been a state to all intents and purposes and that Hamas is its ruler.
Israel is moer than capable of offering Gaza sticks and carrots, so if we enter (direct or indirect) negotiations, in which a prisoner swap is just one of the issues discussed, we’ll be able to reach a good result both regarding the return of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul’s bodies and the other citizens in Hamas captivity and regarding other issues as well.
Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland is a former head of Israel's National Security Council.