olmert last cabinet meeting 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Issues relating to kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, which cast a long shadow over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's nearly three years in office, dominated the government's final cabinet meeting on Sunday, just as they dominated innumerable cabinet meetings in previous months.
Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Prisons Service representatives briefed the cabinet on discussions that have been held over the past two weeks by an interministerial committee headed by Friedmann on curtailing the privileges for Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails.
"Just because we're the only democracy in the Middle East doesn't mean we have to be the only suckers," Friedmann said. "We must not radiate weakness."
Among the ideas being discussed are reducing the visitation rights of Hamas prisoners, curtailing their radio, television, telephone and newspaper privileges, and limiting their ability to pursue academic degrees in prison.
Friedmann told the cabinet that while these steps, apparently aimed at pressuring Hamas, were permissible under Israeli and international law, barring the Red Cross from visiting the prisoners, just as the Red Cross is bared from visiting Schalit, or banning letters to the prisoners, just as Schalit is not allowed any letters from his family, would not be legal.
Likewise, the religious rights of the prisoners could not be restricted, Friedmann said.
Recommendations on what steps should be implemented would be finished within the week and brought to the cabinet of Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, expected to be sworn in on Tuesday.
Before the meeting, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit voiced support for Friedmann's plan, saying, "It's not reasonable that Schalit is living [in the Gaza Strip] without seeing his parents while Hamas prisoners live here as if they were at summer camp."
Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog echoed Sheetrit's words, saying, "There is an abundance of Hamas terrorists in Israeli jails who enjoy special conditions and special treatment while our soldier hasn't even been visited once to check his well-being."
Hamas said such steps would not change its position regarding the release of Schalit.
Abu Obaidah, a spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, said the proposed measures against the prisoners were "evidence of Israel's weakness, confusion and helplessness."
He said the measures were similar to those used by "gangsters, murderers and cowards."
These steps would only increase Hamas's determination not to make any concessions on its conditions for the release of Schalit, he said.
"The Zionist enemy won't be able to blackmail us through these crimes," Abu Obaidah said. "This enemy appears to be so frustrated because of Hamas's strong resolve and refusal to succumb."
Sunday's cabinet discussion came a day after Olmert's special envoy Ofer Dekel left the country in an effort to secure a deal for Schalit in the waning hours of Olmert's tenure.
Nevertheless, Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel told Army Radio that the "chances of securing Schalit's release in the next two or three days are not high."
Yehezkel said progress had been delayed because Hamas had not provided Israel with a revised list of prisoners to be released in an exchange deal, and that it now seemed that matters would have to wait for the Netanyahu government.
Olmert, meanwhile, wished Netanyahu well at the opening of the cabinet meeting, which he noted was the 146th meeting of Israel's 31st government.
"I have no doubt that Binyamin Netanyahu's new government will do its utmost to realize the State of Israel's dream to live in peace and security, with quality of life and in an atmosphere of joy and satisfaction, the dream that every government has hoped for, acted on behalf of and done its utmost to realize," Olmert said.
He recalled that when he first took over as prime minister, he met with Netanyahu who told him that he was embarking on a "tough job."
"I now know this. He has an advantage upon entering the post now for the second time, that he knows this from the first time," Olmert quipped.
"I wish that he succeeds in the job ... and I have no doubt that he will lead the country to achievements and will lead it toward fulfilling its dreams, which are the dreams of us all."
The final cabinet meeting, however, was not filled only with warm and sentimental feelings, as Olmert took the rare step of not approving a trip Defense Minister Ehud Barak had intended to take to Paris on Wednesday, that would have included a weekend there with his wife, Nili Priel.
Barak reportedly submitted the request late last week, and sources close to Barak charged that Olmert torpedoed it as an act of revenge against his bitter political rival, the man whom Olmert holds largely responsible for his having to leave office prematurely.
Barak wanted to go to Paris to attend an event on behalf of the Soldiers Welfare Association, as well as for diplomatic and security meetings with French officials.
Sources close to Olmert said the prime minister only heard about the visit on Sunday morning, and did not feel that it was right for him to bring the trip to the cabinet for approval, since the visit would take place after the new government was in power, and it should approve it.
Olmert also said that it was not right for him to approve the trip since it was not yet clear who would fill in for Barak during his absence.
Government sources said that some 30 minutes into the cabinet meeting, Barak wrote a note to Olmert saying he had already canceled the trip.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.
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