Analysis: Officials fear linking Schalit release with cease-fire puts Egypt relations at risk

"Egypt invested a lot of time and effort into this cease-fire and we've just thrown it out the window."

Omar Suleiman 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Omar Suleiman 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead in late December, two main objectives were set for it - to restore Israel's weakened deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas and to restore security to residents of the South. The operation ended with Hamas believed to be significantly weakened, both militarily and politically. The feeling in the defense establishment was that both objectives had been accomplished. But then came the stagnation, the hesitation and indecision. Israel failed to effectively use the momentum that the operation created and instead of reaching a cease-fire immediately, stalled and postponed its decision until Wednesday, when the security cabinet decided to reject the current proposal and link any deal to the release of abducted soldier Gilad Schalit. At the security cabinet meeting on Wednesday, the ministers were presented with two alternatives - to accept the cease-fire proposal mediated by the Egyptians or to insert Schalit's release into the equation and postpone the implementation of a truce. Until now, the Egyptians had been working on two parallel tracks that, while connected, were expected to be implemented independently. The first track was the cease-fire. The second track was the negotiations for Schalit's release. The Egyptians claim to have been taken by complete surprise by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement Saturday that there would not be a truce without the release of Schalit. "Everything else was settled. A deal was close to being announced," a source close to the Egyptian-negotiations told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. Until the cabinet meeting, there were two schools of thought regarding these issues in the political establishment. The first, held by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, the lead man in the cease-fire talks, was to first implement a truce with Hamas and then speed up talks for Schalit's release. The second approach, announced by Olmert, was to link the two together. This decision, Gilad has said privately in recent days, runs the risk of ruining Israel's strategic relationship with the Egyptians. "The Egyptians invested a lot of their time and efforts into this cease-fire and we have just thrown it out the window," said one defense official on Wednesday. The security cabinet's decision was made just hours before President Shimon Peres began consultations with the various Knesset factions ahead of his decision on who he will decide to task with forming a new government - Binyamin Netanyahu or Tzipi Livni. The decision to link Schalit with the cease-fire likely means that the final decision on a prisoner swap has been passed on to the next government. Olmert even hinted this on Tuesday during his visit to the Kotel. For Olmert this may turn out to be a smart move. As someone who has made no secret of his ambition to possibly return to political life one day, he will now be remembered for his last decision in office not to give in to Hamas's demands. The alternative was to be remembered as the prime minister who released hundreds of murderous Palestinian terrorists.