The inner cabinet has given Israeli mediator Hagai Hadas a "green light" to continue negotiations with Hamas over a deal to secure the release of captured IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit.
After more than four hours of talks, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office released a statement early Tuesday morning saying only that instructions were given to the negotiating team about "the continuation of efforts to bring Gilad Schalit home safe and sound." There was no word of a decision, further meetings or steps. The decision to continue negotiations came in lieu of any final decision by the government to agree unequivocally to Hamas's demands.
The inner cabinet, known as the forum of seven, met into the night Monday in what was described by insiders as a final marathon discussion on the prisoner-swap deal that would end Schalit's Gaza captivity.
According to sources close to the deliberations, the proposal to release some 950 Hamas gunmen and activists, some of whom have been convicted of fatal terrorist attacks, for the 23-year-old soldier was expected to gain approval by the forum, after which it would be presented to the full 30-member cabinet.
"There's a wide majority in support of the swap at this stage," a senior political source said.
According to multiple sources and observers, ministers from Shas will vote for the deal due to the party's spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's belief that the religious commandment of "redeeming the captive" overrides possible security risks in this case.
Labor's ministers, including party chairman and forum member Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have in the past advocated conducting such a prisoner swap.
Likud cabinet members Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich of Israel Beiteinu are also believed to support the deal, as is forum member and Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor, also of the Likud.
Among the ministers who are believed to oppose the deal on security grounds are Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), Science Minister Daniel Hershkovitz (Habayit Hayehudi), National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu), Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud) and Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin (Likud). However, The Jerusalem Post has learned that several of these ministers are reconsidering their opposition as the discussions in the cabinet progress.
Within the forum itself, Netanyahu has the power to break a reported deadlock among the other six members.
Schalit's mother, Aviva, told reporters outside the Prime Minister's Office on Monday that the decision of the inner cabinet would be made "in the next few hours... This will not go on much longer."
Rather than criticizing ministers believed to oppose the deal, Aviva said "it isn't a question of right or wrong."
The forum of seven met three times on Sunday to discuss the Schalit proposal, for a total of over eight hours. Monday's meetings lasted even longer, with discussions reportedly centered on Netanyahu's qualms over the release of "VIP" prisoners - senior terrorism planners and executors - to the West Bank. The prime minister prefers to expel them either to Gaza or overseas.
According to reports in foreign media sources not subject to the IDF censor, Netanyahu has delayed the swap for almost three weeks over the expulsion issue.
If the forum approves the agreement, it must gain the approval of the full cabinet, after which a 48-hour delay will set in for citizens' appeals to the High Court of Justice against the deal. Only then would it go into effect.
The timeline for a full cabinet meeting is unclear, though rumors circulated that ministers were asked to remain in Jerusalem late Monday to be able to participate in a full vote.
The exchange deal has its passionate supporters and critics, with both top security officials and terror victims' families coming down on both sides of the debate.
According to sources, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who attended the forum discussions throughout Monday, supports a swap. But Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin have expressed grave reservations over some parts of the deal, believing that many of the released terrorists would constitute a serious security threat to Israelis.
The Almagor Terror Victims Association has urged Netanyahu in recent days to oppose the proposal, saying it would encourage more terrorist attacks.
A senior Prime Minister's Office staffer, Natan Eshel, met on Monday with terror victims' families who oppose the deal and told them the prime minister's "primary consideration in all his decisions is the security of Israel and its citizens."
Meanwhile, members of the Campaign to Free Gilad Schalit staged a protest outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem in an effort to convince the ministers to vote for the deal.
The protesters held 120 life-size cardboard cutouts bearing the image of the abducted soldier.
Earlier on Monday, Gilad Schalit's father, Noam, explained why he was camped out in front of the Prime Minister's Office: "It won't help to sit at home. We'll wait until the end of the deliberations, and hear the outcome."
"We need to decide already, and so does Hamas. The time has come to end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza," he said.
Aviva Schalit, the soldier's mother, called the vote by the inner cabinet vote a question of life or death for her son.
"I hope they decide today. Everyone who votes must realize their vote means either a death sentence for Gilad or his release," she told Army Radio on Monday morning.
"I can understand the difficulty the ministers are facing; it is not easy for us either," Aviva said. "It is inconceivable that after so many days, no alternative was proposed to releasing Gilad, and he is left there. He can still be brought back alive; the entire world saw that he is still living. He could have been home now, if so many mistakes had not been made," she said.
Also on Monday, Kadima and Ra'am-Ta'al quashed their own no-confidence motions in the Knesset because of the Schalit discussions.
According to Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, the move was motivated by a desire to allow the government to focus on the prisoner deal.
MK Ahmed Tibi of the United Arab List-Ta'al, meanwhile, explained that the motion was delayed because his party supported the prisoner swap proposal.