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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's declaration on Saturday that there would be no cease-fire agreement without the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit stymied negotiations that had practically been completed, an Arab source told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
"Everything else was settled. A deal was close to being announced," a source close to the Egyptian-brokered negotiations between Israel and Hamas said. "In view of the difficulty of the [Schalit] issue, it will complicate the expected deal on the [cease-fire] agreement."
Olmert's declaration about Schalit came as somewhat of a surprise to the Egyptians, who had been working steadily to broker a long-term truce between the two sides, the source said, and came after a weekend of speculation in the media over an imminent truce deal.
A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Egypt's reaction to Israel's demand concerning Schalit, saying that he did not want to interfere with the "delicate, ongoing process" of negotiations.
"I would rather wait until we see how the negotiations shape up," said spokesman Hossam Zaki.
He did say, however, that he expected the cease-fire agreement to take longer than previously thought.
Zvi Mazel, a former ambassador to Egypt who is now a research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, suggested that Olmert's decision to make a truce conditional for Schalit is not necessarily bad for the Egyptians.
On one hand, he said, Egypt was eager to score points at home and abroad by successfully brokering a cease-fire agreement. But on the other, Israel's announcement concerning Schalit helps Egypt to maintain its tough stance vis-a-vis Hamas.
While Hamas wants Egypt to fully open its Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, Cairo has insisted that it would not do so without the acceptance and presence of the Palestinian Authority, as dictated by a 2005 agreement.
Egypt is particularly concerned that an open border with Rafah would allow Hamas fighters to acquire training, support or equipment from Iran.
"Since the Egyptians have been negotiating with Hamas since the end of the war... they have not made any concessions to Hamas," noted Mazel, who served as Israeli ambassador to Egypt between 1996 and 2001. "They kept telling them, 'Listen, you have lost the war... and you cannot impose conditions'" on Israel or Egypt.
Egypt is trying to contain Hamas, in coordination with the PA and Israel, as much as it can, while at the same time maintaining stability in the Gaza Strip, according to Mazel.
As a result, he said, "if Israel becomes, at the last moment, tougher vis-a-vis Hamas and links Gilad Schalit to the agreement, it's not so bad for the Egyptians."