Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter invited a flurry of criticism Friday after the former Shin Bet head said Israel should, and would, be willing to release prisoners in exchange for the release of captured IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit and the cessation of Kassam rocket attacks directed against the western Negev, Sderot and Ashkelon.
After two weeks of government refusal to consider exchanging Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, Dichter's comments before the Industrial and Commercial Club in Tel Aviv was the first time a cabinet member of the cabinet broached the subject of negotiations with Shalit's captors.
"If Israel needs to release prisoners in exchange for releasing the soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel will do so. Israel has released prisoners in the past, both in exchange for the release of hostages, as well as in return for creating periods of calm," Dichter said. He described the release of detainees in exchange for Shalit's return "safe and sound' and the cessation of rocket attacks as "an achievable goal."
But while the gathered commercial and industrial heads applauded as Dichter promised that Shalit would be returned "safe and sound, period, because there is no other possibility," the minister's remarks invited a strong backlash, both within the government and outside of it.
"The prime minister's position is unchanged," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement in response to Dichter's remarks. "Dichter was not speaking for us, and his remarks do not reflect the government's position."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has maintained a policy of demanding
unconditional release of the captured soldier, who was led into captivity by terrorists after being wounded in an attack on his tank two weeks ago.
Olmert was not the only person to take issue with Dichter's comments. Meir Indor, the chairman of the Terror Victims' Organization, Almagor, said that the internal security minister was playing into the hands of Hamas and encouraging terrorist organizations to kidnap soldiers and civilians.
Following the deluge of criticism, a Dichter spokesman claimed that Dichter was not suggesting a prisoner exchange deal, but rather the unconditional release of Shalit. He stated that Dichter meant that if calm was restored and the rocket launches ceased, it would create an atmosphere that would enable Israel to provide goodwill gestures, such as prisoner releases.
Culture and Science Minister Ofir Paz-Pines also backed up Dichter, saying that there was no contradiction between the two positions, claiming that Olmert has embraced an Egyptian proposal, which does not call for negotiations with Hamas or freeing Shalit in a direct exchange for Palestinians held by Israel.
Paz-Pines said in an interview to Israel Radio, that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak proposed that Shalit be freed without preconditions. "Afterwards, as part of a comprehensive agreement. without setting a timetable, it will be possible to release some prisoners, women, minors and so forth."
This is not the first time that Dichter, a member of the security cabinet, set off strong reactions through his declarative statements. One month ago, Dichter aroused strong criticism when he said, in response to continued Kassam fire against Israeli communities that "the government has to fight the Kassam fire with determination and to act in the Gaza Strip as it acts toward Hizbullah in the north. Beit Hanun should be turned into a ghost town."