Egypt: Schalit deal our top priority

Olmert's emissary Ofer Dekel travels to the Arab nation for intensive talks on soldier's release.

Gilad Schalit 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Schalit 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Egyptian sources said on Thursday it was unlikely that the latest Kassam rocket attack on Sderot, or Israel's continuing closure of the crossings into the Gaza Strip, would impinge on talks for the release of captive IDF soldier, Gilad Schalit. Ofer Dekel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's emissary on the prisoner swap issue, travelled to Egypt Thursday for intensive talks on Schalit's release. According to the original cease-fire understanding hammered out by Egypt, intensive negotiations on a prisoner swap were to begin immediately after the cease-fire took effect. Israeli sources have said that Egypt agreed not to open the Rafah crossing from the Gaza Strip into Egypt until there were substantial developments relating to Schalit's release. "Progress on the Schalit issue is now Egypt's top foreign policy priority," an Egyptian source said, indicating that Cairo would now focus on the Schalit matter in the same way it focused intensively for months on brokering the cease-fire. While at some point the Egyptian mediators, led by intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, are expected to shuttle from Dekel's hotel room in Cairo to the rooms of Hamas representatives in order to close the prisoner swap deal, Dekel reportedly concentrated only on procedural issues with the Egyptians on Thursday, dealing with the overall framework of the talks. Beyond the Rafah border issue, Hamas has asked Israel to release 450 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit. Israel has balked at freeing most of those on Hamas' list, saying they were involved in deadly attacks against Israelis. Also on Thursday, Army Radio reported that Israel prefers to release Palestinian prisoners to the Gaza Strip rather than the West Bank as part of its swap with Hamas. The radio said Israeli officials fear that freeing the jailed militants into the West Bank could weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and strengthen Hamas there. Suleiman is scheduled to hold a similar meeting with Hamas representatives next week in Cairo to convey the Israeli response and hear their counterproposal, said another official. Egyptian officials have said their country is trying to bring Israel and Hamas into proximity talks in Cairo to negotiate Schalit's release and solidify the Gaza truce. Israeli officials would not confirm any such talks and a Hamas spokesman in Gaza Osama al-Muzzini underlined that the group's delegation would not be in the same building as the Israelis. On Tuesday night in Jerusalem and again on Wednesday night in his home town of Mitzpe Hila, Schalit's father Noam called on the government to make a decision now to free his son at rallies held to mark the two year anniversary of the kidnapping. He warned that if a deal to release him is not closed soon, his son's life would be in danger, and that soon there would be no one left to save. On Thursday, the former director general of the Foreign Ministry Alon Liel told The Jerusalem Post he believed the government had failed when it came to handling the Schalit negotiations. Liel, who previously conducted secret peace negotiations with Syrian officials, said Olmert had missed a number of "good opportunities to close the deal." "I think this is a leadership failure - Olmert is the only one who who can decide on this. There is no need for a government majority," Liel said. "The fact is that Schalit is alive. We have known from day one that he is alive without any question. So the debate over whether we should release 400 or 500 Palestinian prisoners is a failure. The question of releasing prisoners with blood on their hands is not an issue, because approval already exists to release a very large number of such prisoners. The political leadership is unable to stand up to the pressure that families of terror victims are putting on them," he continued. "If we make any mistakes, the result could be fatal. The risks here are very big. We may be refraining from attacking Gaza out of a fear of harming Schalit. So not having him back very much limits our policy," Liel added. The former diplomat said negotiations with Hizbullah over the release of kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser fell under a different category. "Defense officials seem convinced that the soldiers are no longer alive. With all of the pain involved, those negotiations are really an issue for public and governmental discourse. But when it comes to Schalit... this is about saving a life." Tovah Lazaroff and the AP contributed to this report.