Hila, Israel — Amid a flurry of reports about possible progress in prisoner-swap talks to secure the release of kidnapped Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, his father Noam says he won’t get his hopes up despite signs of encouragement.
“It has only just started to move. It hasn’t reached an agreement. It has a much longer road to go,” he told The Jewish Week in an interview at the Shalit family home in this northern Israel hamlet.
Israel’s government recently convened a committee of top cabinet ministers and former Shin Bet chiefs to discuss relaxing criteria for the release of Hamas prisoners presumably to be used in a prisoner swap. After Shalit’s abduction from the Israeli side of the border with Gaza 18 months ago, Israel and Hamas have been talking intermittently of a prisoner swap through Egyptian mediators.
While Israel seems to be willing to ease conditions for release, it is unclear if anyone is discussing who exactly will be released.
“Apparently the prime minister wants [the committee] to help him respond,” said Noam Shalit, referring to Ehud Olmert. “Until they have the couple of hundred names, there won’t be a deal.”
Indeed, earlier this week, Israel’s media speculated that top officials were considering releasing Marwan Barghouti, the popular politician and militant who was sentenced to five life terms at the start of the intifada.
When asked about the possibility of Israel releasing prisoners directly involved in killings, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio over the weekend, “We need to do everything to bring the troops back to the State of Israel.”
Political experts said the speculation about Barghouti could be an indication of some movement, but it also could turn out to be a false alarm.
“We have more a sense than evidence that something might be going on,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “The nature of this particular deal is that premature publicity can kill it. We are not likely to know about it before it happens.”
Back at the Shalit household, Noam graciously offers a guest tea and cake. The father of the 21-year-old corporal speaks in a voice that is calm, measured and a bit weary.
When asked to pose for a picture with a recently discovered elementary school composition written by his son that was published this week, the elder Shalit modestly declines. “Gilad wrote it, not me,” he protests.
Entitled “When the Shark and the Fish First Met,” it’s a parable describing an unlikely friendship despite the enmity of the two sea creatures, and supporters hope that it will stir more sympathy for the abducted soldier’s plight.
Noam Shalit’s reluctance to be photographed might be a conscious decision to keep out of the media limelight after he criticized the government’s handling of the talks, saying that it missed opportunities to pursue negotiations for the release. The Haaretz newspaper reported that Israel’s government also missed opportunities to cut a deal early on in the Lebanon war to get kidnapped soldiers Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev back.
“The officials say they are doing the maximum, and making 100 percent effort,” said Shalit. “But meanwhile it’s with zero percent output — except for a lot of talk. What we care about is results — not what is being done, and what percentage they’re doing. Maybe they need more than 100 percent effort.”
At the same time, Shalit says he recognizes that the deal to free his son will not be as simple as a pure prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. Included in the calculations are a web of bilateral and multilateral tensions that need to be resolved as part of a deal.
One analyst said that Hamas won’t agree to return Shalit unless Israel agrees to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. A deal between Israel and Hamas on the release would also complicate relations with Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which so far has tried to pressure Hamas by quietly supporting Gaza’s isolation.
“They’re not only talking about the release of Gilad in return for prisoners,” he said. “They’re also taking about surrounding regional politics. I assume that Hamas wants an achievement on the back of Gilad. It’s under a lot of pressure in the strip.”
An engineer by profession, the ordeal of the kidnapping has forced Shalit to become something of a political analyst. Without steady updates from Israel’s government on the negotiation efforts, he’s tried to develop his own sources of information. He’s even held telephone conversations with spokespeople for Hamas politicians like Ghazi Hamad and Ahmed Youssef.
On the eve of the visit of President George W. Bush to Israel, Shalit said that he doesn’t share the speculation that perhaps the president may use the visit to press the Egyptians to sit on Hamas. At a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he asked the U.S. to do whatever possible to speed his son’s release.
“I don’t think anything has advanced, or that the U.S. administration did something about it,” he said. “I haven’t seen any activity of the U.S. administration, not even pressure on Egypt.”
When asked what keeps the family going from day to day with their son’s whereabouts unknown, Shalit smiled, and replied: “We know that we have a mission to do and we know we need to complete it.”