Schalit family protest tent 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The government decided on Tuesday during a special three-hour cabinet session that a new committee of ministers would be charged with brainstorming ways to impose additional "sanctions" on Hamas in order to force the group to be more flexible in negotiations for the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
According to reports, pressure tactics to be considered by the committee would include changing the current treatment of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails to be more equivalent to the treatment currently being received by the kidnapped soldier. Such a change would most likely put an end to family visits which are currently permitted.
Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann has been appointed the chairman of the committee, which is expected to submit its recommendations on Sunday during the next cabinet meeting.
Earlier, ministers coming out of the special cabinet session were quoted as saying the Schalit issue was "stuck."
"Hamas made demands that no Israeli government would have been able to accept," said Friedmann after he left the cabinet meeting.
"We all share in the Schalit family's pain. The prime minister was ready to make many concessions," he said and then added, "but there are red lines that Israel can not cross."
He likened Hamas to Hitler and said that in the years prior to World War II democracies mistakenly made concessions to the Nazis without understanding how dangerous that was until they were on their knees.
However, the government did not announce ending the negotiations with Hamas, which have been conducted indirectly through Egyptian mediation, and said that efforts to seal a deal would continue.
At 8 p.m., Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will make a statement on the matter of the captured soldier.
During the meeting, Olmert requested that cabinet members refrain from discussing the details of the session, and intimated that the two negotiators would travel to Cairo again shortly to continue talks.
The prime minister invited the Schalit family to his office so he could personally update them on the situation immediately following the meeting.
Ministers were briefed by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin and Ofer Dekel, Olmert's point man on the Schalit issue, who both returned from talks in Cairo on Monday night. During the meeting, the cabinet approved a suggestion forwarded by Diskin, in which Israel would release to the public the names of all the prisoners which Hamas was demanding be freed.
In addition to cabinet ministers, the meeting was attended by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who cut short his trip to the US.
Before the meeting, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai said that it appeared the current government would not be able to secure the soldier's freedom.
"It seems that this government won't succeed in resolving the Schalit saga," he said prior to a meeting with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu. "But the next government will be committed with the same intensity to bringing Gilad back. That is its duty, despite the difficulties anticipated."
Netanyahu himself has been silent with respect to his views on the issue and is not expected to express an opinion until the end of the week.
Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila remained optimistic on the matter.
"I feel great sadness, but I hope that in spite of everything, a deal can be finalized in the coming days," she said. "I hope that Hamas will understand the opportunity it has and will not toughen its stance further, so that we can reach a positive solution."
Hopes for a breakthrough that would lead to Schalit's release were dashed Monday night when the Prime Minister's Office released a statement saying that Hamas had hardened its position, gone back on understandings that had been reached in the past year and raised extreme demands in spite of the attempts to advance the negotiations.
The statement was issued upon Diskin and Dekel's return after two days of marathon Egyptian-mediated talks toward concluding a prisoner swap.
Palestinian sources told the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat that the negotiations were discontinued because of Hamas's insistence on freeing all 450 prisoners on the list it presented to Israel. According to the sources, which the paper termed "reliable," the figure behind Hamas's hardened position was the organization's military chief, Ahmed Ja'bari.
Meanwhile, a senior Israeli official involved in the negotiations told Israel Radio on Tuesday that the Hamas demands had crossed "red lines" and Israel would have suffered strategic damage were it to agree to them.
A Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip, however, said, "We are closer than ever to reaching a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel. The ball is now in Israel's court."
A statement on the Web site of Hamas's military wing, however, said "Israel has agreed to free all the prisoners on the updated list." It claims that the only point of disagreement is Israel's demand to deport several of the prisoners.
During the negotiations, Hamas asked for the release of as many as 1,400 prisoners, of which 450 are known to have been involved in terror attacks that killed Israelis. Reports have varied as to whether or not the list had been whittled down to just the 450, and whether Israel had agreed to free some or all. There was some indication that the disagreements between the two sides had been reduced to a final 25 or 50 names.
Hamas representatives said that Schalit would be handed over to the Egyptians as soon as the Israeli government accepted all of the movement's demands.
They also warned against "excessive optimism," saying it was premature to talk about a major breakthrough.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.