Israel announced it will release two Syrian prisoners as a “goodwill gesture” three weeks after the repatriation of the remains of an Israeli soldier who was missing in action for almost 40 years.
Speaking to the media on the condition of anonymity, an Israeli military official said the decision on the Syrians’ release was made “in recent days” and was not a condition for the return of the remains of soldier Zachary Baumel, who went missing during the 1982 Sultan Yaqub battle between Israel and Syria early in the Lebanon War.
The statement was contradicted by Russia, which brokered the Baumel deal, whose representative said the release of the Syrian prisoners was part of an agreed-upon quid pro quo.
In an interview with RT, the Russian national broadcast channel, Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s envoy to Syria, said the return of Baumel’s body had not been a “unilateral” step.
“A decision was made by the Israeli side and implementing it might take some time, and there will be a release of some Syrian citizens held in Israeli jails,” Lavrentiev said. “Therefore, we should not explain this as a unilateral act.”
A Syrian government source confirmed to Reuters that two or more Syrian hostages would be freed from Israeli prisons after Russian mediation.
The repatriation of Baumel’s remains, formalized in a Moscow ceremony attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 4, was announced only five days ahead of contentious Israeli elections, and unified war-weary Israelis for whom the ideal of not leaving soldiers behind remains a living paradigm.
Netanyahu faced a stiff challenge from Benny Gantz, a centrist candidate and former military chief of staff.
On the day Baumel’s repatriation became public, Gantz said in a radio interview that he believed the event was timed to help Netanyahu win the elections.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he replied, when asked if the repatriation of a war hero had been programmed with the imminent vote in view, “but I am more than happy that Baumel has been returned to his family.”
In response, Netanyahu denied any diplomatic price had been paid for Baumel’s remains and demanded Gantz “apologize to the Israeli people.”
Saturday’s revelation comes at a delicate time for Netanyahu, who President Reuven Rivlin tasked with forming the next Israeli government.
Netanyahu came in at a dead heat with Gantz in the April 9 election.
He became the clear front-runner only after parties representing a majority in the next parliament, which will be sworn in on Tuesday, recommended him as their favored candidate to lead the next government.
But the new government is not yet formed, and Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted on several corruption charges pending a July hearing, confronts a series of political challenges.
He is facing angry recriminations from senior members of his own party, including close Likud party allies, who fear being shut out of the future Cabinet in favor of representatives of a clutch of more extreme right-wing partners angling to join the coalition, and strident demands from those parties.
The Russian revelation also disclosed an uncomfortable nugget for Netanyahu hours ahead of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, the first following a two-week Passover break: His Cabinet had been left in the dark.
According to Israeli law, any government decision relating to the release of “security prisoners” as part of a diplomatic initiative must be approved by the Cabinet.
The Israeli official who spoke to media said the decision had been approved by the attorney general and was signed by Rivlin.
Late Saturday, Rivlin confirmed his approval of the deal, saying he had done so after consultations with the attorney general, who in rare cases of “extenuating circumstances” may approve the circumvention of the Cabinet.
In an unexpected twist, both prisoners slated to be released said they would refuse to be returned to Syria.
Zidan Tawil, held by Israel since 2008 for drug smuggling and a member of the Druze ethnic minority, said he faces persecution by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Ahmad Khamis, a Palestinian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, was arrested in 2005 for attempting to infiltrate into an Israeli military base with the intent to harm soldiers. He has requested release to the West Bank city of Hebron.