Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday praised Yaron Blum, the new envoy to oversee efforts to negotiate the return of Israelis held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, calling him the right man for the job.
Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he chose Blum for the position due to his role in negotiating the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held in Gaza for five years until his release in 2011 as part of a controversial deal with the Hamas terror group in which Israel freed over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
“He views this as a national mission,” Netanyahu said of Blum. “I think that he is the appropriate person for this important mission.”
The prime minister said he called the families of the Israelis being held by Hamas in Gaza prior to making the appointment and stressed to them his commitment to returning them to Israel.
“We understand our moral and humanitarian debt to do everything possible to bring them back,” he said, while adding that he was sure Blum would make a “very important contribution to this sacred mission.”
Netanyahu’s appointment of Blum, a veteran of the Shin Bet security agency, was announced on Saturday.
“In my opinion this is a national mission, and we all must do what we can do bring our boys home,” Blum told Channel 2. “I accepted the position with much motivation, after being asked by the prime minister.”
Blum is replacing Lior Lotan, who was appointed by Netanyahu to lead negotiations for the release of the remains of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed during a 50-day conflict with Hamas in 2014. The terror group is also believed to be holding three live Israeli citizens — Avraham Abera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima — who are all said to have entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord.
Lotan resigned the position in August, citing both personal and professional reasons.
Earlier this month, the Shaul family warned they would petition the High Court of Justice if a new government negotiator was not appointed to oversee efforts to retrieve their son’s remains.
Following Lotan’s resignation in August, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said a replacement for Lotan should not be appointed until Israel draws up “clear boundaries” for prisoner swap negotiations in order to “make clear to [Israel’s enemies] that we have no intention of compromising on the security of the people of Israel.”
Liberman also said Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal, pointing to the high recidivism rate among terrorists released in the deal as grounds for opposing a future prisoner swap.
The father of Hadar Goldin condemned Liberman at the time for his remarks, calling the defense minister “weak” and “cowardly.”
On Saturday, Liberman wished Blum success in the new role, and said that Israel’s defense establishment would support him in any way.
As part of the efforts to return the bodies of Shaul and Goldin, Israel has reportedly been holding indirect talks with Hamas about a possible prisoner deal.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar reportedly said last month that Hamas has accepted an Egyptian proposal for a prisoner swap with Israel and is awaiting Jerusalem’s response to the offer.
His remark came after the Palestinian daily Al Quds quoted sources in Cairo as saying the Egyptian offer would see Israel first hand over the bodies of 39 Palestinians killed in the 2014 Gaza war, 19 of whom are Hamas members, in exchange for Hamas acknowledging the fate of IDF soldiers Shaul and Goldin.
In the second stage of the Egyptian plan, Israel would reportedly release the so-called “Shalit captives” — 58 Palestinians who were rearrested in the summer of 2014 after being set free in the 2011 Shalit swap. Hamas will then enter into genuine prisoner exchange talks with the Jewish state, the report said. The talks would reportedly be mediated by Egyptian intelligence services.
Sinwar also said at the time Lotan resigned over internal differences regarding the Israeli position toward a prisoner swap.