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(photo credit: AP [file])
Noam Shalit, father of kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, urged Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday to prove his peace overtures by mediating for the release of his son.
"If Assad's intentions are really serious, all he needs to do is make a phone call to Khaled Mashaal and act to expedite Gilad's release," Israel Radio quoted him as saying.
Shalit also dismissed the possibility of an approaching deal on his son's release.
"The family knows by now not to get excited by every tale of Gilad being released soon because these are usually media spins made for advancement of personal interests," he said, reiterating sentiments he related to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday night after denying reports that he had received a videotape proving his son was alive.
Haniyeh: 'Good formula' reached in prisoner swap talks
Following the disillusionment created by the fog of contradictory messages from Palestinian sources on the progress of the negotiations for Shalit, the Prime Minister's Office released a statement on Monday morning saying that no significant progress had been made.
The statement followed a meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and security officials - including former Shin Bet head Ofer Dekel, who serves as Olmert's representative on the prisoner release issue - regarding a possible prisoner exchange deal.
Olmert and other officials attending the meeting said that in contrast to reports in the Arab media, the negotiations over the kidnapped soldier's release were at a stalemate, mainly because of Hamas's excessive demands. They declared that the number of prisoners Hamas demanded - 1,500 - was a disproportionate demand for the release of Shalit.
Similarly, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi said that he was not aware of any deal and that he estimated that the Palestinian reports were part of the internal struggle between Hamas and Fatah.
"It appears that Hamas, in its power struggle with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, or out of a desire to raise the price of Gilad Shalit, is creating speculation. As far as I am aware, there is no breakthrough in talks to free him. It is media spin," said Hanegbi.
Moments later, Hamas released a statement saying that the demands were not inflated and that Israel had no choice but to accept them, Israel Radio reported.
Earlier Monday morning, reports in the Arab media were optimistic, indicating that a deal would be concluded before the end of the week.
The London-based pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman had presented the Hamas leaders with Israel's proposal to secure Shalit's release, in which an exchange would take place in three stages.
In the first stage, Israel would reportedly release 450 women and minors in exchange for proof that Shalit was alive.
In the second stage, Shalit would be returned to Israel, and Israel would release 450 prisoners whose identity would be chosen by Shalit's captors.
Finally, the report said, two months after Shalit's release, Israel would release another group of prisoners whose identity would be determined by the government.
The Saudi newspaper Al Watan reported that Israel would include Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and leading PFLP operative Ahmed Sa'adat, who was among the assassins of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001, in the prisoner exchange deal.
The Hamas leadership did not issue a response to the supposed offer, but the Al Watan report said they would most likely accept it.
Hamas's official response was reportedly to be announced at a Thursday summit between Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Palestinian Ramattan news agency went even further, claiming that a deal would be announced at the summit.
However, Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said a prisoner swap will merely "arise as a subject" at the summit Thursday, along with "other issues, including the situation in the Palestinian Authority and regional issues involving Syria, Lebanon, and Iran."
Ahmed Yousef, a top aide to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said that he was "optimistic" that Thursday's summit in Egypt would bring about a prisoner swap deal.
"I'm optimistic that this issue will be addressed and Israel will start taking serious steps toward releasing prisoners," he told The Associated Press.
On Sunday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's political advisor said that Israel would release a total of 1,400 prisoners in exchange for Shalit.
The Palestinian optimism on Monday morning was an echo of similar sentiments expressed in the Israeli press on Sunday.
Reports that a videotape of the soldier was delivered to Israel were published. These, however, were denied by Israel and the Shalit family, along with diplomatic sources, who said that there had been no major breakthrough and that the recent barrage of optimistic statements coming from Haniyeh were meant for domestic Palestinian consumption.
According to these sources, the Palestinian street wanted to see action on the release of Palestinian prisoners, and Hamas was trying to deflect responsibility for taking so long to secure a prisoner swap on Israel.
Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, denied the possibility that either a deal had been struck for his son's release or that such an agreement was pending.
"None of it is true," he told The Jerusalem Post Sunday night. Shalit added that contrary to media reports during the day, he had not received a videotape that showed that his son was alive.
Shalit said he had gotten used to these "virtual" stories during the six months since his son's kidnapping on June 25. "I've learned not to react too quickly," he added.
Nevertheless, senior defense officials said there had been "major progress" in the negotiations, and that the soldier's release was imminent.
"We cannot yet say when Shalit will come home but it looks like if things continue to progress positively, it will happen in the near future," one official said.
According to the official, Egyptian mediators had "expressed optimism" in their reports to Israel, while predicting that a deal would be reached in the coming week. The official said that a prisoner swap involving Shalit would be the focus of the talks between Olmert and Mubarak.
AP contributed to this report.
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