Tuesday, October 18 marked five years since the return of Gilad Schalit to his home after five years and four months in captivity in Gaza. We can all argue about the price that was paid for his release and probably everyone agrees that it was too high, but at the time of his release close to 80 percent of the Israeli public supported the deal and 26 ministers voted for it, while only three opposed. The support of the deal in the government was of course led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Most of the public does not know that had Schalit remained in captivity one month more, he probably would have died from malnutrition.
Netanyahu’s decision to support the deal and to advance the secret back channel that led to it was based primarily on the so-called unwritten covenant between the State of Israel and the people of Israel that we don’t leave anyone behind. That is one of the pillars on which Israel stands and which enables Israel to have a “people’s army.”
I was contacted by Hamas six days after Schalit was abducted. Two-and-a-half months later I produced the first sign of life from him: a handwritten letter that was delivered to the representatives of Egypt in Gaza and proved not only that he was alive, but also that there was a communication channel that led directly to his captors.
Despite that, it took another five years to convince the government of Israel to listen to me and to utilize the direct channel between me and the Hamas leadership. It was the wisdom of former Mossad officer David Meidan and the courage of Netanyahu that led to the deal that brought Gilad home to Israel.
Many third-party mediators tried their hand at negotiating between Israel and Hamas; it was only the secret back channel that worked. The third-party mediator came in at the final stage to lock in the deal, but the secret direct contact is what make that possible.
After Schalit came home, I was convinced that the same formula would be adopted by Netanyahu to reach a permanent-status peace deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It was and remains clear to me that both Netanyahu and Abbas lack the internal political strength and stability to enable negotiations on the core issues (borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem).
Genuine Israeli-Palestinian permanent-status negotiations would bring down the Israeli government and would probably be the final straw for Abbas’s political legitimacy. If, on the other hand, Abbas and Netanyahu were to conclude an agreement in secret direct negotiations and present that agreement to their respective publics in either new elections or a referendum, I strongly believe that it would pass on both sides with significant majorities.
Netanyahu would not present an agreement to the public without buy-in from the Israeli national security heads, just as the Schalit deal was presented to the public and the government with the support of the IDF Chief of Staff, the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) and most of the other senior national security establishment. This is how the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be presented to the public.
While about 30% of the Israeli Jewish public would vote against any deal with the Palestinians (this is my estimate) some 70% of the Jewish public could vote in favor, in addition to the 21% of the Israeli public represented by Palestinian citizens of Israel. On the Palestinian side, I estimate that a similar 30% of the public would reject any peace deal with Israel, but 70%, including in Gaza, could potentially support it.
I believe that peace can only be reached through a negotiated agreement and that the only way to conduct successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is through a secret back channel. The most successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were conducted in this way – the original negotiations in Oslo and the 42 meetings between prime minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas that brought us closer to an agreement than ever before.
I presented the proposal of a secret back channel to Abbas on several occasions over the past years and he immediately agreed. At that time, Netanyahu was not prepared to enter such a process. Today I am not sure Abbas would be prepared to enter into secret negotiations with Netanyahu, although I think he would.
I am not sure Netanyahu is any more prepared than he was in the past to advance such a channel. I can say with authority that several of the ministers in his government to whom I proposed bringing the idea to Netanyahu over the past 12 months refused to take it to the boss. Netanyahu declares in public his willingness to negotiate with Abbas, but he is well aware of Abbas’s political weakness and the almost impossible situation that even meeting Netanyahu in public would create for him.
I still believe that the only way forward is a secret back channel. I also believe that a serious proposal from one of these leaders to the other to open such a channel would lead to it taking place. There are no guarantees of a positive result from such negotiations, but one thing is guaranteed – there will be no peace without negotiations and genuine negotiations will not take place without the leaders negotiating directly.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (www.ipcri.org).