(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Amid reports that senior government ministers are now more willing to pay a "heavy price" to free kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, Palestinian sources were cited in Cairo on Thursday as saying that progress has been made on a prisoner exchange.
According to a report by the Emirates News Agency, the progress was made during Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad's meetings Thursday in Cairo, and the parameters of a comprehensive package are beginning to emerge: the release of Schalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners and the opening of the Gaza border crossings, including the Rafah terminal on the Sinai border.
The report said a Schalit deal could be completed within three weeks.
The timing would place his release right around the time of February's 10 elections, and there are increasing voices in Jerusalem claiming that the present flurry of activity surrounding Schalit is connected to the elections.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin issued a rare statement on Thursday distancing himself from a Yediot Aharonot report that he has softened his position regarding the release of security prisoners following Operation Cast Lead.
According to the statement, the Shin Bet's position has consistently been that it was not opposed to releasing dangerous prisoners on the condition that they were sent either to the Gaza Strip or abroad, but not to the West Bank.
An Egyptian official confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that Schalit was one of three major issues discussed by Gilad and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman on Thursday.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated what he has been saying all week: Operation Cast Lead increased the chances for a deal that would free Schalit in the near future. He did not elaborate.
"Nothing is closer to our hearts. We were constantly dealing with this issue during the operation, there wasn't a day that this was not on my table; our best people are working on this every day," he said.
Despite Barak's assessment that an agreement could be reached soon, he said that "Jerusalem, but not only Jerusalem, will have to make difficult decisions" to bring about Schalit's release.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told her European Union counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday evening that "as long as Gilad Schalit remains in the hands of Hamas, it will be impossible to solve the crisis in the Gaza Strip."
There is reportedly a sense among some cabinet ministers that in light of the blow the IDF delivered to Hamas, it might be possible now to release more of the prisoners Hamas wants without endangering the nation's security.
Likewise, there is some expectation that Hamas may be more flexible now because after Operation Cast Lead, because it needs some kind of achievement to present to the Palestinians.
Hamas is reportedly demanding a list of some 450 prisoners, many of them with 'blood on their hands' and responsible for some of the worst terrorist attacks of the second intifada. A special governmental committee has so far approved some 150-200 of those names for a possible exchange.