'Time has come for a decision on Schalit'

Time has come for a dec

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet the parents of captive soldier Gilad Schalit not before but after an inner-cabinet meeting on a proposed prisoner exchange with Hamas, contrary to earlier reports. The meeting, which began Monday morning, was not time limited. It was not clear when Netanyahu would convene the full cabinet to vote on the deal, which was mediated by Egypt and Germany, but Channel 1 reported late Sunday that a cabinet session could take place as soon as Monday. The seven-member inner cabinet convened three times on Sunday at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem to discuss the materializing prisoner-release deal that could allow Schalit to go free after three-and-a-half years in captivity in Gaza, and was due to meet for a fourth time on Monday morning. One source called it "a make-or-break situation," saying "the time has come for decisions on the Israeli side." One sign that the deal was being considered was that Netanyahu invited Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who is known to support it, to join the inner cabinet meeting late on Sunday. Other security officials, including the heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Mossad and IDF Military Intelligence, were also believed to have attended the meeting. The inner cabinet, known as "the Forum of Seven," was said to be deeply divided over the proposal and the discussions were tense. Netanyahu himself reportedly had not yet made up his mind, though he is said to have opposed the release of those directly involved in murder to the West Bank, possibly preferring that these prisoners be expelled from both Israeli and Palestinian territory. In the past, it was reported that three ministers were in favor of the deal: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor. Three more have previously expressed grave reservations over the possibility that terrorists "with blood on their hands" would be released back into Palestinian territory: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin. No decision was reported on Sunday night after the last two-hour session of the Forum of Seven. Any final deal exchanging hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners for Schalit would require the approval of the full cabinet, but approval by the inner cabinet, which includes the party heads of all major coalition partners, would likely lead to approval by the remaining ministers. The cabinet's divided views reflected divisions throughout the security establishment. Earlier this year, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin reportedly opposed a prisoner deal for Schalit, while other senior security officials, particularly in the IDF, support it. Also divided are family members of terror victims. The Almagor Terror Victims Association sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to oppose the deal, asking who would be responsible for the "rivers of blood" that would flow from the release of convicted terrorists. But the prime minister also received other notices from the families of terror victims urging him to approve the proposal and noting that the imprisonment of the Palestinian terrorists would not return their relatives. The inner cabinet was summoned for the Schalit discussions on short notice early Sunday, and then met again immediately after the weekly cabinet meeting in the afternoon and once more in the late evening. The government would only confirm in the evening widespread speculation that the forum was conducting critical discussions regarding a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas. On Sunday evening, Aviva and Noam Schalit, parents of the captive soldier, arrived at the Prime Minister's Office to deliver a letter urging Netanyahu to step up efforts to secure their son's release. "We are appealing to you in a last-minute cry for help - please save our son, please save Gilad," the Schalits wrote in the letter. "Our hearts tell us that the negotiations have reached a point of no return... We are at a crossroads that has only two possible outcomes - the rescue of Gilad Schalit and his safe return home, or abandoning his fate to the hands of Hamas," the letter read. The parents of the captive soldier also pleaded with the prime minister not to "lay all the problems of the Middle East onto our son's narrow shoulders." Indications that the deal was near its conclusion included statements by a senior Hamas official in Lebanon, who said that the organization was "awaiting Israel's response on the prisoner exchange deal, which will be relayed in the coming days by the German mediator. "We a look forward to finalizing a respectable deal," Hamas official Izzat al-Rashek said in a rally in Beirut. Foreign news outlets have reported in recent days that the proposal discussed in the cabinet on Sunday has been on offer for some three weeks, but that Netanyahu has been reluctant to agree to it. The Egyptian paper Al-Ahram quoted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as saying over the weekend that the German mediator overseeing talks between Israel and Hamas had threatened to resign if a deal was not concluded within two-to-three weeks. Meanwhile, Israeli officials met with Egypt's top intelligence chief on Sunday, though few details were forthcoming about the content of the meetings. At the end of an hourlong meeting in the evening with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Lieberman chose to discuss Iran, saying "Egypt has more to fear from Iran than we do." The foreign minister went on to stress that "the greatest danger in the Middle East today is Iran, which is a greater threat to moderate Arab nations than to Israel." Teheran, according to Lieberman, is "attempting to duplicate the model of Hizbullah in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen." Earlier in the day, Suleiman met with Barak in Jerusalem, where he heard that Egypt is a "central player" in the Middle East. "We're always happy to see him," Barak said ahead of the 90-minute meeting, 30 minutes of which were held one-on-one. "I hope we have fruitful talks here," the defense minister added. Ahead of the meeting at the capital's Crowne Plaza Hotel, Barak also expressed hope that Suleiman's visit would help to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Neither Barak nor Lieberman mentioned Schalit after meeting with Suleiman. Gil Hoffman and Gidon Ben-Zvi contributed to this report.•