What Netanyahu Must Do to Bring Home the Hostages

What Netanyahu Must Do to Bring Home the Hostages
Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

If the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, were serious about securing the release of all the hostages in Gaza, they would have been home long ago.

From his first official statements after Oct. 7, Mr. Netanyahu has placed a higher priority on destroying Hamas than on ensuring the hostages’ safety. It took weeks before the Israeli negotiating team adequately addressed the hostage situation. Mr. Netanyahu appointed a political ally, whose previous nomination for national police chief had been scuttled by controversy, to the position of coordinator for the captives and the missing.

Hamas initially set strict terms for a hostage exchange: the release of all Palestinian prisoners, about 8,000 people, which at that time included 559 serving life sentences for killing Israelis. Israel has undertaken even more lopsided deals than that, as with the 2011 exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, overseen by Mr. Netanyahu himself.

I was one of Israel’s negotiators on that 2011 deal, and I was told many times that nothing like it could ever occur again. But holding so many hostages was a logistical nightmare for which Hamas was not prepared, which meant there was room to negotiate. From my communications with Hamas and with people in the Israeli war cabinet in the first days of the current conflict, I saw that a quick deal would have been possible to return the women, children, wounded, sick and elderly on terms that Israel could tolerate.

For a few days in November, the safety of the hostages took center stage. Negotiations overseen by Qatar’s prime minister and the head of Egypt’s intelligence service produced the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees, mainly teenagers, in exchange for 105 hostages and a seven-day cease-fire. It was a start. Other obstacles would arise, but instead of slowing down and finding solutions, Mr. Netanyahu was anxious to resume the fighting.

Mr. Netanyahu says total victory over Hamas, not negotiations, is what will win the hostages’ release. I have yet to meet a serious Israeli military person who understands what total victory over Hamas means. Nonetheless, most of them believe that Israeli forces will eventually find Hamas’s leaders deep underground and kill them, leading to a breakdown in Hamas’s chain of command and the release of the hostages.

A much more likely scenario is that any Hamas leader who Israel finds in the tunnels will be surrounded by hostages. In an ensuing gun battle, Hamas leaders will be killed, but so will many hostages, as well as Israeli soldiers. Or perhaps the bunker will be armed with heavy explosives that will kill everyone present. Under those circumstances, the chain of command within Hamas probably would break down, but there is no reason to think that would produce a better outcome for the remaining hostages. Why wouldn’t their captors simply execute them?

Israel’s strategy has been a disaster. Six months into the war, Israel has destroyed the vast majority of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. More than 30,000 Gazans have been killed and about two million are displaced with no homes to return to. Hundreds of thousands are at risk of dying from starvation. Throughout all that, despite amassing enormous amounts of intelligence, the Israeli military has succeeded in rescuing just three hostages (and killing three others who were trying to escape). According to official figures, 130 of the Oct. 7 hostages remain; as many as 50 are feared died.

In Cairo and in Doha, Qatar, negotiations are ongoing. For many reasons, these must be among the most bizarre hostage negotiations ever conducted. To begin with, there is no direct contact between Israel and Hamas, which are fully committed to killing each other.

Hamas no longer demands an all-for-all hostage-for-prisoner swap. Its leaders now talk about ending the war, getting urgently needed humanitarian aid, enabling people to return to their homes or the places where their homes once were and getting Israel out of Gaza. Israel, not only traumatized but also humiliated by the Oct. 7 attack, insists it will stop at nothing to remove Hamas, even — and if you ask some of the more extreme Israeli leaders, especially — if it means reducing all of Gaza to rubble.

Mr. Netanyahu should have sent his top security and intelligence officers to the negotiations and instructed them that no one could leave until white smoke rose from the chimney. He should trust that they understand the security risks that Israel faces and let them act accordingly, in real time, rather than flying back to Israel for consultations with every development, as they have so far apparently been required to do.

I am a strong advocate of direct negotiations. As valuable as third-party mediators — from Qatar or Egypt or anywhere else — are, they necessarily bring their own interests and their own styles. I was told by three different Hamas leaders, one of them from Gaza and two based in Doha, that Hamas is prepared to open a direct back channel, which could enable more creative thinking and lead to more feasible solutions. I delivered that message to the Israeli team but did not receive a positive response. It is possible, of course, that such communications are underway in secret, but to the best of my knowledge that is not the case.

In the second week of the war, in a video call with about 50 families of the hostages, I told them two things: First, the government will tell you to shut up, but don’t! Scream as loud as you can. Tell the public the names of your loved ones. Show their pictures, tell their stories. Second, you will go around the world, you will meet with politicians and activists and journalists, but at the end of the day you will have to put pressure on the Israeli government to return your loved ones. A week ago, a large group of the families stated publicly that Mr. Netanyahu has failed at bringing home the hostages, that he does not want an agreement and that he must step down and allow someone else to get the job done.

Recently, the Egyptians and Qataris reported that new ideas had arisen in the negotiations. There is a spirit of guarded optimism, but negotiations are once again deadlocked. Meanwhile the leaders of Israel’s negotiating team are not present, and it is not clear if the team has been given a new mandate. And the hostages remain in Gaza.

Israel failed to protect its citizens on Oct. 7. Every additional day that the hostages are in Gaza is a risk to their lives and a betrayal of the Israeli promise never to leave anyone behind. Many have already died. For their sake, and for Israel’s, no issue should be more urgent.

Gershon Baskin is the Middle East director of the International Communities Organization, a human rights advocacy group, and has 17 years of experience of negotiating with Hamas.

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