Comptroller slams undefined role of Israeli negotiator for release of Gaza captives

Matanyahu Englman says PMO never detailed post’s responsibilities, has only ‘minimal’ information about work done; captive’s relative says meeting had been ‘void of content’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

File: Families of Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed hold a press conference calling for the release of the two Israeli citizens from Hamas captivity, on September 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)
File: Families of Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed hold a press conference calling for the release of the two Israeli citizens from Hamas captivity, on September 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

The job description of Israel’s chief negotiator on behalf of Israelis held by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group have never been formally established, the state comptroller warned in a report issued Tuesday.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said the negotiators have operated over the years without the Prime Minister’s Office ever actually establishing the responsibilities, authority, or any detailed framework of the role.

The last top negotiator, Yaron Blum, announced in October that he was resigning after nearly five years in the post. Before him, Lior Lotan served in the position between 2014 and 2017.

According to Englman’s report, the government never implemented recommendations made by the 2012 Shamgar Commission, which set out to determine principles for prisoner releases. A lone security cabinet meeting in June 2014 discussed the recommendations.

“The comptroller found that there were no further discussions by the government, the [security] cabinet or any other committee of ministers regarding the Shamgar Committee’s recommendations, and no decisions were made regarding the committee’s recommendations,” the report said.

The report said information the PMO had about the negotiator’s work was not handled in an orderly fashion, and the negotiator himself had “minimal” information about his predecessor’s work.

Yaron Blum, coordinator for negotiating the return of POWs and MIAs, on April 3, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Additionally, there was no formal framework for the negotiator’s connection with the families of Israeli captives.

A family member of one of the captives told Englman that a meeting she had held with one of the negotiators was “void of content” and he did not present any “significant information” regarding the efforts to return her relative, the report said.

Englman also said that the last negotiator was paid a monthly salary of around NIS 50,000 ($14,000) over a four-and-a-half-year period, with work hours similar to state employees, despite him technically being an “external adviser.”

According to Civil Service Commission guidelines, external advisers are not allowed to be employed by state agencies for lengthy periods and with similar monthly hours to state employees.

Englman recommended that the role of negotiator be officially established and its authority and responsibilities defined.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, February 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas is holding two Israeli citizens, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, since 2014 and 2015, respectively, along with the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during a 50-day conflict with the terror group in 2014.

Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal that released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity saw 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners released, many of them convicted terrorists.

Israel has worked to secure the return of two living men and the two soldiers’ remains to their families. Egyptian intelligence, which maintains close ties to both Israel and Hamas, often serves as the key intermediary.

Israelis attend a rally calling for the return of the remains of late Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin from Hamas captives, outside the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, on July 8, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Those efforts have so far failed to yield results. In 2021, Israeli defense officials held a round of talks described as the most significant and serious to date in light of the added pressure on Hamas from the coronavirus pandemic, which had been growing steadily in the beleaguered Gaza Strip.

Hamas is considered highly unlikely to concede on the matter of the mass release of Palestinian security prisoners, a highly contentious move that no Israeli government is likely to approve again.

The 2011 exchange to secure the release of Shalit was deeply controversial, with many in Israel’s security establishment at the time calling it lopsided in Hamas’s favor. Many of the 1,027 prisoners released later returned to terror — such as Yahya Sinwar, who now serves as Hamas’s Gaza governor.

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