Two months into the Netanyahu government’s term and almost three years to the day since Gilad Shalit was captured from his tank on the border of the Gaza Strip, Israel still has no clear policy on how to secure his freedom from Hamas.
Last week, Mr Netanyahu’s office finally announced the appointment of a new special representative to take over the delicate brief, former Mossad operations supremo, Haggai Hadas. The choice of representative raised eyebrows. In the past, lawyers and seasoned secret diplomats, with decades of experience in murky dealings, spearheaded the labyrinthine negotiations over prisoner exchanges.
Mr Hadas is an entirely different creature. As head of Kidon, the Mossad department in charge of operations in enemy Arab countries, he would hardly be the man to sit across the table from adversaries he would be more used to seeing through the sights of a sniper-rifle.
Those in the defence establishment firmly opposed to the exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many serving life for murder, rejoiced at Hadas’s appointment.
They interpreted it as a change of direction by the new prime minister and an attempt to solve the Shalit saga with new “creative” ideas, such as kidnapping high-value Hamas targets as bargaining chips, instead of resorting to disproportionate exchanges.
But it is far from certain that this was Mr Netanyahu’s intention. Hadas was only the fourth choice for the job; the previous three candidates were all negotiators. The last one, Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor, turned down the offer when he feared that he would not receive the necessary backing and powers to carry out the job.
A very senior defence official said last week that the next round of negotiations over Shalit’s release “will begin from the point that the talks broke off”, three months ago.
In other words, after Israel agreed in principle to free hundreds of prisoners “with blood on their hands” in return for the single soldier, there is very little chance of a different outcome. The Egyptian-brokered talks foundered in the last days of Ehud Olmert’s government when Israel refused to release some of the more notorious killers on Hamas’s list. The next round of talks, whenever they take place, will be depressingly similar.
So why choose for the job a man who may have been number three in the Mossad but has little relevant experience? The answer seems to be rather mundane. Up to his eyes in the budget details and more than anything else, the showdown with a new US administration, Mr Netanyahu has still not found the time to seriously address the thorny issue.