What Netanyahu Must Do to Bring Home the Hostages

If the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, were serious about securing the release of all the hostages in Gaza, they would have been home long ago.

From his first official statements after Oct. 7, Mr. Netanyahu has placed a higher priority on destroying Hamas than on ensuring the hostages’ safety. It took weeks before the Israeli negotiating team adequately addressed the hostage situation. Mr. Netanyahu appointed a political ally, whose previous nomination for national police chief had been scuttled by controversy, to the position of coordinator for the captives and the missing.

Hamas initially set strict terms for a hostage exchange: the release of all Palestinian prisoners, about 8,000 people, which at that time included 559 serving life sentences for killing Israelis. Israel has undertaken even more lopsided deals than that, as with the 2011 exchange of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, overseen by Mr. Netanyahu himself.

I was one of Israel’s negotiators on that 2011 deal, and I was told many times that nothing like it could ever occur again. But holding so many hostages was a logistical nightmare for which Hamas was not prepared, which meant there was room to negotiate. From my communications with Hamas and with people in the Israeli war cabinet in the first days of the current conflict, I saw that a quick deal would have been possible to return the women, children, wounded, sick and elderly on terms that Israel could tolerate.

For a few days in November, the safety of the hostages took center stage. Negotiations overseen by Qatar’s prime minister and the head of Egypt’s intelligence service produced the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees, mainly teenagers, in exchange for 105 hostages and a seven-day cease-fire. It was a start. Other obstacles would arise, but instead of slowing down and finding solutions, Mr. Netanyahu was anxious to resume the fighting.

Mr. Netanyahu says total victory over Hamas, not negotiations, is what will win the hostages’ release. I have yet to meet a serious Israeli military person who understands what total victory over Hamas means. Nonetheless, most of them believe that Israeli forces will eventually find Hamas’s leaders deep underground and kill them, leading to a breakdown in Hamas’s chain of command and the release of the hostages.

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