Olmert get off chopper 248.88.
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to condition a Gaza cease-fire and the opening of the border crossings on the release of Gilad Schalit comes amid a growing sense in Jerusalem that Hamas is not "serious" about releasing Schalit and would be happy if the current situation continued "indefinitely," senior government officials said Thursday.
The official's comments came as Olmert told a delegation made up of four US senators and two congressmen on a fact-finding mission that he would bring a proposal to the security cabinet on Wednesday which he said would hopefully bring about Schalit's release, strengthen the prevention of arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip and bring about long-term quiet in the South.
According to the government officials, Olmert told the delegation, headed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland), that the release of Schalit was the key to movement on all the other issues. Olmert said that conditioning the opening of the crossings and the cease-fire on the release of the captive soldier was necessary to attain his release.
With Defense Minister Ehud Barak's wings badly clipped as a result of last Tuesday's election results, Olmert - who until now let Barak and his diplomatic-security bureau chief Amos Gilad run the negotiations with the Egyptians - spoke in person Monday with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and appraised him of the situation.
Senior government officials stressed, however, that "no one should have any illusions," and that the price for Schalit's release would be "very painful," both in terms of the number and "quality" of Palestinian prisoners to be let go.
While stressing that Olmert was committed to freeing Schalit, the official said that "at the moment, everyone says to do whatever you can to get him out, but when the Israeli public hears the price, we do expect to hear critical voices."
The official said that the proposal to be brought to the security cabinet on Wednesday would not likely include the names of those to be released, but rather criteria for their release. The matter is not expected to be brought before the full cabinet, and it isn't clear how long after the security cabinet votes on the matter (assuming that the cabinet approves it) the actual release would take place.
Olmert has promised to consult with Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu on the matter.
The prime minister, on a tour earlier Monday of two new communities established for evacuees from Gush Katif in the Halutza area near the Egyptian border, denied that he had changed Israel's position regarding the cease-fire by conditioning it all on the release of Schalit and said that this had always been his position, but that out of a sense of "responsibility," and because of the sensitivity of the matter, he had in the past not wanted to state it publicly.
In a related matter, the congressional delegation that met with Olmert on Monday is scheduled to travel to Damascus on Tuesday, but Cardin said that the delegation was not asked by Olmert to bring any message to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post what the Syrians had done to merit a visit by his delegation, and a visit later in the week by Sen. John Kerry, Cardin said that Syria "represents a real challenge to this region, and the reason for this visit is because we have serious concerns about what is happening in Syria. We are trying to get answers."
Cardin defined the delegation's trip to the region as a "fact-finding mission so we can develop the right policies in support of Congress and the Obama Administration."
"We are trying find out whether there is an opportunity to move forward and for Syria to stop its financing of terrorist activity," Cardin said. "It is affecting Israel's security in the North and South, and it is affecting the stability of the region. We are very concerned about a closer relationship developing between Syria and Iran, it is an issue we want to find out more information about."
The other members of the delegation are Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rode Island), Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Congressmen Mike McIntyre (D-North Carolina) and Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin).
Udall and Wicker won their first Senate races in 2008.