Security cabinet discusses Schalit deal

Soldier's release to be linked to truce; Mashaal: Unacceptable to combine cease-fire and swap.

February 17, 2009 12:53
Security cabinet discusses Schalit deal

Schalit 248.88. (photo credit: Channel 10 [file])

Israel and Hamas appear to be on another collision course, with the security cabinet poised to approve a framework on Wednesday that would link the release of Gilad Schalit to any cease-fire deal, and Hamas rejecting any such linkage. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to ask for the security cabinet's authorization of a framework that would condition any Gaza deal on the release of the abducted soldier. The Campaign to Free Gilad Schalit plans to hold a rally in front of the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday morning, during the security cabinet meeting. On Tuesday, Olmert signaled that the negotiation process was still far from complete, saying it should be concluded in a "short period," but leaving open the possibility that a deal might not be finalized until after he left office. "One thing is clear, the foundations that we set [for Schalit's release] - even if they are not completed during my tenure - will make it possible to return him immediately afterward," Olmert said during on a tour of the Western Wall and nearby archaeological sites. "I have never stopped dreaming of the moment when Gilad will return to his family. There is a photo of him in my office and I think of him every day," he said. During Wednesday's security cabinet meeting, the ministers are expected to discuss which security prisoners, and how many, Israel would be willing to trade for Schalit. While a number of the high-profile terrorists demanded by Hamas are due to be discussed, the security cabinet is not expected to go over a full list of those Israel is willing to let go. Such a move would be premature, because "this is not a done deal" and there is little indication at this time that Hamas will accept the linkage of Schalit to the overall package that includes a cease-fire and the opening of border crossings, one government source said. If anything, Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has indicated that Hamas would not accept such linkage. "Israel is responsible for blocking Egypt's efforts to broker a [Gaza] truce by adding a new condition at the last minute," AFP quoted him as saying. "A truce can come about only in exchange for a lifting of the blockade and the reopening of the crossing points. It is unacceptable to combine the truce issue with the question of Israeli prisoner Gilad Schalit," he said. Earlier Tuesday, however, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat quoted a senior official in the organization as saying that Hamas had no objection to the demand that a deal on Schalit's release be finalized before a cease-fire agreement, as long as Israel releases all of the prisoners on Hamas's list. While Olmert insists that conditioning a cease-fire on Schalit's release was his position all along, it apparently took the Egyptians, who have been negotiating both for Schalit's release and a cease-fire agreement for weeks, by surprise. Cairo is anticipating a decision from the security cabinet Wednesday that would enable a cease-fire agreement, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday. "We don't hope for anything. We are waiting for a decision that will make a tahadiyeh [cease-fire] possible," Hossam Zaki told The Jerusalem Post. "There is no optimism or pessimism. We're just waiting." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak insisted that the issue of Schalit would not be linked to the truce, Arab media reported Tuesday. "Egypt will not change its position on the truce" and the matter of Schalit "is a separate issue which can in no way be linked to the continuous negotiations to reach a cease-fire to end the suffering of the residents of Gaza," he was quoted as saying, during a brief visit to Bahrain on Monday. Mubarak added that despite an apparent change in the Israeli attitude, Egypt "was exerting continuous efforts to reach a tahadiyeh." Olmert, however, said Tuesday he had not heard any criticism from Mubarak, adding that Israel "greatly appreciated" Egypt's efforts to stop the arms smuggling and facilitate an arrangement that will bring calm to the South. "We know the Egyptians are doing all they can," he said. The prime minister is expected to update Mubarak on Israel's position after the security cabinet meeting. Sources in Jerusalem say that Olmert's public insistence now on Schalit's release is connected to Tuesday's election results, and the weakened position of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his Labor Party. Of the so-called troika that oversaw the war in Gaza, Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Barak was the most keen on securing an agreement that would institutionalize a cease-fire, something that Livni, and - to a lesser extent - Olmert, never thought necessary. Now that Barak's political position has been significantly weakened, the cease-fire agreement has taken a back seat in Livni and Olmert's mind to securing the release of Schalit. By contrast, the sources point out, Hamas desperately needs a cease-fire and the opening of the border crossings to reconstruct the Gaza Strip and improve its public standing there, but would like to drag out the negotiations for the release of Schalit "indefinitely." On Tuesday night, the Schalit family released a statement calling on the government to include Gilad in any cease-fire, and not to waste this opportunity as it did when it agreed to a six-month truce last June. "Israel has made many humanitarian gestures since Gilad was taken captive, including the transport of medicines, treatment for the wounded and many other examples. At the same time, Gilad has not experienced such gestures. The Red Cross has not been allowed to visit him. For many long months there has not even been proof that he is alive," the family said. Gilad's father, Noam, also spoke on all three television channels to urge the government to make a deal now to release his son, and not to waste this opportunity, which might never come again. If a deal for his release was not struck now, it might be months or even years before he was freed, Noam said. His son's release should be a top priority with respect to any decisions made regarding Gaza, including opening the crossings into the Strip, he said. Noam told Channel 1 that "we are not close to a deal. We are far from a deal." He said that while he believed the government wanted to finish the matter, "not everything has been done as we would want. We have been dealing with this for many months and still Gilad is not with us." As the brother of a soldier, Yoel, who died in the Yom Kippur war, Noam said he understood the pain of the bereaved families who had spoken out against releasing Hamas terrorists in exchange for his son. What was important here, he said, was that it was still possible to save Gilad. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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