ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Inside storyMeeting diplomats, Hirsch 'lectured' them for Oslo support

Hostage negotiators say pilloried Israeli envoy a nonfactor in talks

Two foreign officials tell ToI Gal Hirsch didn’t play role in release of first four hostages, has been unhelpful in efforts for remainder; defense officials say he’s unfit for post

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Natalie Raanan, 2nd left, Judith Raanan, right, are seen upon arrival in Israel after being released from Hamas captivity as government hostage envoy Gal Hirsch, center, holds their hands, October 20, 2023. (Courtesy)
Natalie Raanan, 2nd left, Judith Raanan, right, are seen upon arrival in Israel after being released from Hamas captivity as government hostage envoy Gal Hirsch, center, holds their hands, October 20, 2023. (Courtesy)

Israel’s newly appointed hostage envoy Gal Hirsch was a nonfactor in the negotiations to release two pairs of Israeli hostages over the past week, two foreign diplomatic officials have told The Times of Israel.

The revelation comes against the backdrop of mounting criticism of Hirsch’s performance since he was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day after Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel, during which some 1,400 people were killed and roughly 220 people were taken hostage.

Mohammad al-Emadi — Qatar’s envoy for Gaza who has been handed the hostage portfolio as well — sought to reach his new Israeli counterpart for a week but Hirsch did not reply, one of the diplomatic officials said, confirming a report by Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar.

Qatar moved ahead with its efforts to secure the release of Judith and Natalie Raanan without help from Hirsch, the diplomatic official said. He said he was therefore surprised to see Netanyahu’s office publish a photograph with Hirsch in between the two Raanans upon their return to Israeli territory on October 20 (seen at the top of this story).

Some Israelis criticized Hirsch for taking center stage in that scene, accusing him of inserting himself into a photo op without having had a role in the two women’s release.

When Hamas released Yocheved Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper on October 23, Hirsch was not photographed at their reception at the border.

A week earlier, Hirsch shocked a group of foreign ambassadors when he convened a meeting with them to discuss efforts to release the hostages, which he used to “lecture” them on their governments’ approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the envoys present said.

Freed hostage Yocheved Lifshitz with her family and Ichilov Hospital staff on October 24, 2023. (Jenny Yerushalmi)

“Your nations, your governments kept pressing us to give them more and more and more although they were launching rockets,” Hirsch shouted at the ambassadors in a speech that the Prime Minister’s Office later posted on YouTube.

“Instead of asking us how we can help in releasing the captives, he came to reprimand us for an [Oslo] agreement signed when none of us were in office,” one of the envoys told the Haaretz daily.

“There is hardly a country in Europe that isn’t trying to help with the abductees’ issue in some way or other,” another ambassador said. “Many of us are in constant contact with families of abductees who hold dual citizenship. We want to help, and we don’t need political lectures.”

Hirsch’s conduct has also led to criticism from the Israeli security establishment, with anonymous defense officials telling the Haaretz daily that Hirsch is not fit for the job.

The senior diplomatic official speaking to The Times of Israel said Qatar, Egypt and the US prefer to work with former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen along with reserve generals Nitzan Alon, Lior Carmeli and Yoav (Poli) Mordechai who have been managing the hostage file for the IDF.

The diplomatic official said Sunday that Israel and Hamas were in advanced negotiations through Egypt and Qatar for the terror organization to release 50 more hostages.

The talks made progress before hitting a snag on Monday, the senior official said, confirming an earlier story in The Wall Street Journal, which reported that Hamas had begun conditioning the release of 50 dual nationals on Israel allowing fuel into Gaza.

Netanyahu and Hirsch scheduled a meeting with representatives of the hostages’ families on October 16, after the premier came under fire for his lack of contact and US President Joe Biden spoke with American hostages’ relatives before he did.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, right, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, attend a meeting, in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

But after the meeting, several of the families present accused Netanyahu’s office of inviting political allies who weren’t part of their organized campaign to sit in and try and rally support for a Gaza ground invasion, which might endanger those being held captive.

“I love my daughter… no less than the rest of you love your own family members. But at the end, we have to look at the people of Israel and the future of our existence here,” they quoted the apparent Netanyahu ally as having said.

Netanyahu’s office later issued a statement saying several individuals whom the premier did not know made an uncoordinated arrival and identified themselves as relatives of Israeli hostages in Gaza.

“Their request was approved and they were allowed to join the meeting. No one in Netanyahu’s office has any prior knowledge of these people, and the insinuation that they were ‘planted’ in the meeting is false, shocking, outrageous and unacceptable,” it said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) embraces a family member of someone being held hostage in Gaza, during a meeting in Ramle, October 15, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Hirsch, a once-promising senior IDF officer, resigned from the military over a damning inquiry into his conduct during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He came under intense criticism in the wake of the abduction of two Israeli soldiers on the eve of the war in an area under his command, as well as for his leadership style during the war.

In 2015 he was nominated by then-police minister Gilad Erdan to serve as police chief, but his candidacy was sunk over suspicions of illicit business dealings.

In addition to his lack of diplomatic experience or fluency in Arabic, Hirsch’s appointment raised eyebrows due to his membership in Netanyahu’s Likud party. The premier reportedly promised Hirsch a spot on the faction’s election slate in late 2022 before eventually tapping former deputy head of the Police Internal Investigations Department Moshe Saada instead.

With the reports about Hirsch piling up, the Movement for Quality Government submitted an urgent appeal to Netanyahu, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and Civil Service Commission Daniel Hershkowitz on Sunday, calling on them to cancel his appointment as hostage envoy.

The good governance group highlighted Hirsch’s outstanding indictment for tax evasion and said he has not signed a conflict of interest agreement nor has he obtained a security clearance, despite the sensitive nature of the post.

“Concern arises in our case that the cause of Hirsch’s appointment is his being a close associate with political ties to the prime minister, and the Supreme Court has addressed the problematic nature of political appointments numerous times,” the letter states.

Concerned that airing their grievances with Hirsch would harm efforts to secure the release of their loved ones, two of the leading representatives from the recently created Hostage and Missing Families Forum declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Hirsch did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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