Olmert postpones cabinet meeting on Schalit by 24 hours
Session moved to Tuesday to allow negotiators an extra day in Cairo to hammer out deal, but Olmert associates pessimistic on their chances.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF, KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Just after midnight, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert postponed Monday morning's special cabinet session on captive soldier Gilad Schalit to Tuesday, in order to allow Israeli negotiators to spend an extra day in Cairo to hammer out a deal for the young man's release.
"It should be emphasized that as of yet, there is no sign that indicates a result in any particular direction in the negotiations," the Prime Minister's Office said.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin and the prime minister's special envoy for prisoner swap contacts, Ofer Dekel, spent Sunday in Cairo to negotiate a prisoner swap with Hamas via the Egyptians, for Schalit. They had been expected back early Monday to report to Olmert on whether a breakthrough had been achieved, but at the last moment they decided to spent an extra day in Egypt.
The trip, which followed Dekel's talks in the Egyptian capital last week, fueled speculation that there was still a chance for a deal before Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu forms a government, possibly by the end of the week.
Netanyahu kept silent on the issue Sunday, saying he would end his long-standing policy of not commenting on Schalit's fate only after he forms a government, which he intends to do by Thursday's deadline.
"When he is prime minister, he will speak about the issue," a senior source close to the Likud leader said. "But right now there is nothing positive that can come in any direction from making any comments."
A confidante of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday told Channel 10 that "we will be surprised if a deal to release Gilad Schalit is effected in the coming days." According to the report, people close to Olmert were pessimistic over the possibility that the last-ditch effort to free the kidnapped soldier would come to fruition before the government's term is up.
On Tuesday, after Dekel and Diskin return,Olmert plans to brief Gilad's parents, Aviva and Noam, about the latest round of talks, after which he is scheduled to convene the cabinet.
Ministers will either be asked to approve the details of a prisoner swap, or be briefed on the failure to strike a deal before Olmert steps down.
"The government will convene to discuss the outcome of the talks, and according to the circumstances, we will decide if and how we will make a decision," Olmert told the cabinet on Sunday, at its regular weekly meeting.
Already more than half the ministers have said they are likely to support such a deal.
"I have said in the past, and I repeat: We want to bring Gilad home, and we are making great and unprecedented efforts to do so," Olmert said.
Part of the problem, he explained, was that Hamas was "an inhumane terrorist organization that believes human compassion is a weakness."
MK Ayoub Kara (Likud) said that on Sunday he had been briefed by Egyptian Ambassador Yasser Reda with respect to Schalit and that he planned to speak with the family on Monday.
During the various phases of the drawn-out negotiations, Hamas has asked for the release of as many as 1,400 security prisoners, including 450 believed to have been involved in terrorist attacks that killed Israelis.
The government had initially balked at the release of the 450, but some media reports said it had now ceded this point.
Last week, in an effort to pressure Olmert to make a deal before he leaves office, Aviva and Noam Schalit set up a protest tent outside the Prime Minister's Residence in the capital, where they have been joined by thousands of supporters, including politicians and cabinet ministers.
On Sunday they braved the rain and the cold wind to continue their vigil.
Gilad's grandfather, Tzvi Schalit, told The Jerusalem Post, he was "skeptical" that the latest talks would bring good news.
If this last effort failed, he said, Israel should talk directly with Hamas.
But Gilad's older brother, Yoel, 25, said, "We can only hope for the best. This is the last and the best chance to return Gilad."
Hamas spokesmen in the Gaza Strip said on Sunday that some progress had been achieved in the Egyptian-mediated talks to free Schalit.
But they denied a report in a Kuwaiti newspaper that the Egyptians had summoned Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal to Cairo to put the final touches on a prisoner exchange agreement.
Hamas said any prisoner exchange agreement with Israel would be considered a major victory for the Palestinians because it would prove that the IDF had been unable to free Schalit itself.
Abu Obaidah, spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, said that reports about an imminent deal with Israel "proved that the Zionist enemy has failed to liberate its soldier through military means."
He said a deal would constitute a major victory for the Palestinians because it would show that Hamas has succeeded in forcing Israel to accept its demands.
"We regard the proposed prisoner exchange as a humanitarian case that should be resolved by accepting all the conditions made by the Palestinian resistance factions," he said.
Abu Obaidah added that Hamas had not received any official proposal from Israel. He said his group had not heard about an Israeli offer to release 450 Palestinian prisoners with "blood on their hands" in exchange for Schalit.
He also reiterated Hamas's rejection of the Israeli demand to deport some of the released West Bank prisoners, either to Gaza or abroad.
"Every prisoner must return to his family and homeland," he said. "Hamas is completely opposed to the idea of deportation."
The Hamas spokesman ruled out the possibility that Hamas would soften its position on the issue of Schalit.
"We have said from the beginning that our conditions are final and that there's no room for flexibility," he stressed. "We are talking about the lives of prisoners and for many of them this might be the last chance to be freed."
Despite the Gaza spokesman's pessimistic tone, sources close to Hamas said that the real talks were taking place in Cairo. They said the movement's leaders in Syria were handling the Schalit case, and that "the Hamas representatives in the Gaza Strip are not fully involved."
In his remarks to the cabinet on Sunday, Olmert said he had instructed Diskin and Dekel "to exhaust all efforts to return Gilad."
Since Schalit was kidnapped in June 2006, the prime minister said, "we have made unceasing, I would say considerable, wide-ranging and complex efforts on various channels, some of them in secret, most of which were known to only two or three people, to protect the effort being made to bring about an agreement that will lead to Gilad Shalit's release.
"All of these channels operated intensively in various places and contexts," Olmert said. "Until today," the prime minister continued, "the position of Hamas has been more extreme than what any moderate voice in Israel would be willing to accept."
On Sunday, several ministers expressed public support for the deal.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said, "This government is prepared to finalize the deal, [because] when it's replaced, no one knows what will happen."
Minister-without-Portfolio and security cabinet member Ami Ayalon said he was prepared to support such a deal even if it meant the release of prisoners with "blood on their hands."
"Many of the Palestinian prisoners whose release is being discussed were tried and imprisoned during my tenure as Shin Bet head," Ayalon told Army Radio. "There is no prisoner sitting in an Israeli jail worth Gilad Schalit's continued captivity. There is simply no one like that."
He added that he did not believe that the release of the 450 "high-level" prisoners on the Hamas list would necessarily lead to an increase in terrorism.
"Terrorism depends less on the identity of terrorists who are freed than on 'diplomatic horizons' and the atmosphere on the Palestinian street," Ayalon said.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz visited the protest tent and told Gilad's family the government had "a moral duty" to "do everything feasible to bring him back. My impression is that the efforts are in the right direction, and we all hope that they will succeed."
"In the same way that we send soldiers off on our missions, we must ensure their safe return home," Mofaz said.
Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog stressed that these "are critical and fateful hours."
"The heart yearns for his return, but the situation is complex and difficult," said Herzog. He is among those likely to support a prisoner swap.
He added that humanitarian groups that work in Gaza had told him that the Palestinians there wanted to see Gilad returned because they understand that it would facilitate the full opening of the crossings into the Strip.
Among those who opposed the release of security prisoners are the members of Almagor, the Terror Victims Association, who on Sunday set up their own protest tent across the street from where the Schalit family sat.
They had been there last week, but had halted their protest for a few days, only to renew it in advance of Monday's cabinet meeting.
One father of a terror victim, Yossi Mendellevich, said that although he felt for Gilad's family and wanted to see their son freed, he did not believe it should happen at the expense of Israeli lives.
According to Almagor, 180 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks that involved prisoners freed in past releases.
"If this deals goes through, it decreases the values of the lives of ordinary Israeli citizens," Mendellevich said.
Gil Hoffman and Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.
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