With the return Wednesday of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed by Hezbollah terrorists in 2006, Israelis turned their attention to negotiations to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured two years ago by Hamas and its allies.
But a new round of negotiations mediated by Egypt that were to begin this week in Cairo was unexpectedly called off by Hamas Monday, reportedly to try to force Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing connecting Egypt and the Gaza Strip before coming to the bargaining table.
Ron Kehrmann, whose daughter, Tal, 17, was killed by a suicide bomber in 2003, said he is afraid the price for Shalit’s release will be greater than it might have been if Wednesday’s body transfer had not occurred.
“Israel should not have released any live terrorists, certainly not one with blood on his hands like [Samir] Kuntar,” he said.
Kehrmann noted that a Hamas representative was quoted as saying that his organization viewed Wednesday’s transfer as a “case study” in negotiating prisoner releases with Israel and that its demands would now be more extensive.
He was apparently referring to Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, terrorist groups that operate in the Gaza Strip. He was quoted as saying that “kidnapping [Israeli] soldiers will continue to be the most efficient, favored and ideal way to release Palestinian prisoners, particularly those defined by the enemy as having blood on their hands.”
Kehrmann questioned why the transfer took place when “everyone knew the two soldiers were dead. I don’t know why Israel released terrorists with blood on their hands knowing that another swap was in front of us.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Hamas’s decision to call off this week’s talks appears to stem from an internal Hamas dispute between the leaders based on Gaza and Khalid Meshal, Hamas’ leader-in-exile in Damascus.
“They are assessing how much more they can get from Israel,” he said. “The people in Gaza want their [prisoners] back quickly.”
Wednesday’s body transfer, although favored by a majority of Israelis, only served to further weaken Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because it focused renewed attention on the failure of United Nations Resolution 1701, which ended the war with Hezbollah in 2006, Steinberg pointed out.
Although the resolution called for Hezbollah not to rearm, the group is now said to have more weapons than before.
“It also hurts Tzipi Livni because the two of them pushed it and oversold it by far, despite a lot of criticism,” Steinberg said, referring to Olmert’s chief political rival in his Kadima Party.
Olmert also suffered what Steinberg called “a total embarrassment and a disaster” last weekend when he walked over to Syrian President Bashar Assad at a Paris conference and tried to shake his hand.
“The picture on the front page of all the newspapers here showed Assad with his back to him and Olmert with his hand extended,” he said. “The image of Olmert being humiliated was very clear.”
Although the two men were seated at the same conference table and their countries have been holding indirect peace talks for months, Assad refused to be photographed with Olmert and walked out of the room a half-hour before Olmert spoke.
When asked by a reporter why he had avoided shaking Olmert’s hand, Assad replied: “We are not seeking symbols.”
But he also told another reporter that Syria wanted to “normalize” relations with Israel, something he said would not happen until there is a new president in the White House.
Robert Pelletreau, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told a conference call arranged by the Israel Policy Forum that Assad emerged from the meeting as the “clear winner.”
“He ended years of isolation … and it showed that France was moving beyond the Hariri assassination and looking for a new relationship with Syria,” he said.
He was referring to the 2006 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed in a car bombing investigators suggest was ordered by Syria.
Pelletreau said that at the Paris conference Olmert was reduced to “trolling the corridors, looking for handshakes and eye contact. It shows that Syria is controlling the pace” of the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.
Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said on the same call that the “real loser was President [George W.] Bush, whose policy of not talking to Syria is bankrupt. Israel is not only talking [with Syria] but is serious about it while we sit on the sidelines and allow [French President [Nicolas] Sarkozy to undercut Bush’s position …. But it can’t be done without the U.S.”
Pelletreau said he believes that any of the Israeli leaders mentioned as Olmert’s successor would continue the Syrian talks but “with less of an aura of desperation that Olmert is showing now.”
Despite the criticism of Olmert, he continued in office even as one of his chief accusers, Long Island Rabbi Morris Talansky, was expected to be cross-examined late this week by Olmert’s lawyers. They hoped to destroy the rabbi’s testimony, in which he said that he gave Olmert more than $150,000 in cash stuffed in envelopes over the course of 13 years and demanded nothing in return.
Should Olmert not be indicted in the scandal by September, Steinberg predicted the party may delay a scheduled primary in order to keep him in office.