Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointed representative overseeing efforts to retrieve of the remains of two IDF soldiers and two other living Israelis currently held captive by Hamas in Gaza has resigned after three years in the position.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday said that Lior Lotan had requested to step down “after serving voluntarily in the position for three years.”
Lotan, a retired IDF Colonel, was appointed by Netanyahu in 2014 to lead the efforts to return the bodies of slain IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul and bring back Avraham Mengistu and Juma Ibrahim Abu Anima, two Israeli men who crossed into Gaza on their own accord and were said held by the terror group.
Lotan told the prime minister the position was “extremely demanding, both professionally and personally and it was therefore appropriate to change personnel every few years,” the statement said.
Netanyahu thanked Lotan, saying that he had carried out his role “with dedication, creativity, and professionalism while showing great emotional commitment.”
Lotan will be replaced by Netanyahu’s current military secretary Col. Eliezer Toledano “for the time being,” the statement said.
“We will continue to do all we can to bring the captured, missing, and fallen back home,” Netanyahu said.
Lotan’s resignation was slammed by the Goldin family, who said in a statement they felt “the prime minister has forsaken us.”
“Behind the words ‘the government is doing everything to bring Hadar and Oron home,’ there is the bleak reality in which nothing is being done to bring the boys home,” the Goldin family said in a statement to Channel 2.
“We demand from Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman to urgently appoint a replacement and implement the cabinet decisions reached last January and to pressure Hamas in all ways to return the boys to Israel,” the statement said.
Goldin and Shaul were killed in separate incidents during fighting in the 50-day Gaza military campaign in 2014. They were both declared dead based on evidence the army acquired, but their bodies were never recovered by Israel.
Lotan replaced David Meidan, who held the coordinator position for three years. Meidan had played a key role in drawing up the Shalit prisoner exchange deal which ultimately led to the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2011 in exchange for some 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
Lotan had previously headed the Prisoners and Missing Persons Military Intelligence Division and had taken part in the successful negotiations with Hezbollah aimed at retrieving the bodies of three IDF soldiers and the release of an Israeli citizen who had been abducted by the Lebanese terror group.
During his tenure, Lotan faced harsh criticism over a recording of him warning the family of Mengistu not to link Israel’s response to their son’s captivity with heightened racial tensions in the Ethiopian community.
In July 2016, Lotan was heard telling the family of 28-year-old Mengistu, an Israeli citizen of Ethiopian descent, that if any attempt was made to connect his fate with tensions between the Ethiopian community and the government, it would “cause [Mengistu] to stay in Gaza for another year.”
Netanyahu renounced Lotan’s threats at the time, but nevertheless praised his representative’s efforts to advance negotiations over Mengistu’s return.
“Those were utterances that should not have been said,” Netanyahu stated. “Lior [Lotan] works day and night as a volunteer to return our missing soldiers and civilians.”
Little is known of the whereabouts of Mengistu, who crossed the Gaza security fence in September 2014. Family members have described Mengistu as “unwell” and urged Hamas to consider his condition and return him to Israel immediately.
Abu Anima from the Bedouin village of Hura, reportedly entered Gaza via the Erez Crossing in April 2015. According to an Israeli official, the man has mild psychological issues and has a history of traveling to Jordan, Egypt and Gaza.