Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday appointed Shin Bet veteran Yaron Blum to oversee Israeli efforts to negotiate the return of the Israelis held by the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.
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.
Blum has served in the Shin Bet Security Service for many years in a senior capacity, and was instrumental in negotiating the release of IDF solider Gilad Shalit, who had been held in Gaza Strip for 5 years before being released in 2011 as part of a controversial deal with Hamas in which Israel freed over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
Earlier on Saturday, Netanyahu called the families of the Israeli hostages and fallen soldiers to inform them of Blum’s appointment.
“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.”
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 swap for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. 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.