By YAAKOV KATZ
The rapid pace of recent media reports leaves no doubt that something is afoot with regard to Gilad Schalit and his possible release.
However, even if the media reports are correct, judging by past prisoner swaps, including the most recent one in July 2007 with Hizbullah, the process is still only in its initial stages and there are several major hurdles left to overcome.
Once the details of a deal are finalized between Hamas and Israel - the number of prisoners to be released and the way the deal will be carried out - the proposal will still need to be brought to the cabinet for approval. While government ministers are currently refusing to speak about the Schalit negotiations, judging by some of their past remarks, the vote may not go as smoothly as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might prefer.
Take Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon as an example. In an extensive interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this year he asked: "From experience, we also know that terrorists who are released return to terrorism and cause more bloodshed. Do we want to cause bloodshed by releasing hundreds of terrorists?"
Other cabinet members, such as Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau and even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have all, at one point or another, expressed opposition to mass-prisoner releases in exchange for captive soldiers.
This does not even take into account the potential opposition from Israeli security chiefs. In the July 2008 swap with Hizbullah, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin and Mossad chief Meir Dagan came out against the deal, which included the release of live Hizbullah captives for two dead Israeli soldiers.
On the other side was Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi who, according to media reports at the time, slammed his fist on the cabinet table and said that the nation needed to do everything in its power to win its soldiers' return.
Despite the opposition that the deal may encounter it will likely pass since, given what appears to be immense public support for the release it will be difficult to envision ministers putting their political careers on the line and voting against the proposal.
Once this happens, the defense establishment will need several days to complete preparations.
Due to the heavily-imposed military censorship, the media have not been allowed to divulge at the moment whether Schalit will be released to Egypt or Israel, how he will get there and what the format of the release of prisoners will be - will the exchange take place simultaneously or will Schalit be released first and then the prisoners, or the opposite.
This will depend on how determined Hamas is to go through with the deal, something that the Israeli defense establishment is not completely convinced about yet. The release a few months ago of female prisoners in exchange for a videotape of Schalit was aimed on the one hand at obtaining a sign of life, and on the other at ensuring that the Hamas members Israel has been talking with - through Egyptian and German mediation - are the right address and can actually deliver.
The ban on publication of details of the deal has so far prevented a public debate on some of the critical issues. These include, according to some reports, the unprecedented release of a significant number of Israeli-Arabs, as well as some of the most notorious terrorists Israel has known, such as former Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and PFLP leader Ahmed Sadat.
Once they surface, these issues will draw additional questions for Israelis to ponder, such as the effect the deal will have on the Palestinian political map - it will likely strengthen Hamas and weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - and most importantly the possibility that it will motivate terror groups to continue making every effort to kidnap another soldier.
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