'Israel ready to free many prisoners'

J'lem wants to ensure Abbas, not Hamas, reaps domestic Palestinian dividends.

Gilad Shalit 298 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilad Shalit 298 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel would be willing to release a "very, very large number" of Palestinian prisoners to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for the release of kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, but not to Hamas, senior government officials said Monday night. The officials' comments, at the end of another day of confused messages regarding the fate of a prisoner swap, indicate the degree to which Jerusalem views the Shalit issue as a political football on the Palestinian street. Hamas, according to Israeli officials, is under intense domestic pressure to produce a prisoner swap, which explains the organization's recent optimistic comments about an imminent deal. Hamas, according to these officials, wants to create the impression that a deal is just around the corner, so that the Palestinian public will believe Israel is to blame for the long delay, and not Hamas for setting unrealistic demands. At the same time, Israel - when it agrees to a deal for the release of Shalit - wants to ensure that Abbas, and not Hamas, reaps the domestic Palestinian dividends. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Monday with top security officials, including Ofer Dekel, who is in charge of prisoner negotiations, to discuss recent developments. Afterward, government officials said Hamas's demands for the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners were "inflated" and Israel would not give in to them. The 1,500 Palestinian prisoners that Hamas has been talking about in the media was "way overboard," one official said. The official also denied reports that the release of Shalit would be announced at Sharm e-Sheikh on Thursday at a meeting between Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ahmed Yousef, a top aide to PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said he was optimistic that the Sharm e-Sheikh summit would bring about a prisoner swap. Palestinian officials in Cairo said Haniyeh and Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman discussed the prisoner swap Sunday night in Saudi Arabia. Egypt is pressuring Hamas to lower its demands so that Israel can agree and Mubarak can announce a deal at Thursday's summit, the officials said. But, countered one Israeli government official, the announcement of a deal in Sharm e-Sheikh "is not going to happen." Soon after the Olmert-Dekel meeting, Hamas spokesmen said their demands were not exaggerated and that Israel had no choice but to accept them. Meanwhile, Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad, brought Syria into the mix on Monday, urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to prove the authenticity of his recent overtures by mediating for the release of his son. "I would say to President Assad that if your intentions are serious, you could with one telephone call give us a small, significant hint that you are serious," he said in an Israel Radio interview. "All you need to do is call your friend Khaled Mashaal, whom you have hosted for a long time in Damascus, and hint to him that you are interested in finishing this issue as soon as possible." Shalit also dismissed the possibility that a deal is imminent. "The family knows by now not to get excited by every tale of Gilad's being released soon," he said, "because these are usually media spins made for the advancement of personal interests." He made similar remarks to The Jerusalem Post Sunday night, after denying reports that he had received a videotape proving his son was alive. Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi said he was not aware of any deal, adding that Palestinian reports about an emerging deal were part of the internal struggle between Hamas and Fatah. "It appears that Hamas, in its power struggle with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, or out of a desire to raise the price for Gilad Shalit, is creating speculation," he said. "As far as I am aware, there is no breakthrough in talks to free him. It is media spin." Reports in the Arab media Monday were very optimistic, indicating that a deal would be concluded before the end of the week. These reports, however, had to be put in perspective because there have been numerous reports in the Arab media during the six-month ordeal saying that a release was imminent. The London-based pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Suleiman had presented Hamas leaders with Israel's proposal to secure Shalit's release, in which an exchange would take place in three stages. In the first stage, Israel would reportedly release 450 women and minors in exchange for proof that Shalit was alive. In the second stage, Shalit would be returned to Israel, and Israel would release 450 prisoners whose identity would be chosen by Shalit's captors. Finally, the report said, two months after Shalit's release, Israel would release another group of prisoners whose identity would be determined by the government. The Saudi newspaper Al Watan reported that Israel would include Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti and former PFLP leader Ahmed Sa'adat, who was among those involved in the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001, in the prisoner exchange deal. Israeli officials said these reports were baseless. AP contributed to this report.