Peres: Progress made toward Schalit deal

Hamas official Progress

Amid reports of an impending deal with Hamas to secure the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, President Shimon Peres told reporters in Cairo on Sunday that progress had indeed been made toward a prisoner exchange. "There are negotiations between the two sides. I do not think that I need to elaborate. We all know there is progress. I hope that it will lead to a positive conclusion," Peres said. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi warned that the media reports on progress in the talks "could harm the efforts" to release Schalit. "We have a deep commitment to release Gilad and this is a joint effort by everyone, but it needs to stay behind the scenes," he said. "This is what will contribute to his returning home quickly." Despite his words, the Israeli, international and Arab media churned out headlines throughout the day on an imminent agreement. Fox News reported that a deal had taken "another important step" forward and that Israel has approved a Hamas list of 70 additional names that met its criteria for release. Israel originally had reservations about 70 names on a Hamas list of 450 security prisoners it demanded in exchange for Schalit, 22, who has been held by Hamas in Gaza since June 2006. According to Al-Arabiya satellite news, senior Hamas officials will arrive in Cairo on Monday for talks with Egyptian officials and Gaza-based Hamas officials. Usama Mazeini, a Hamas official involved in the German-brokered negotiations over Schalit, told Hamas newsletter Al-Risala on Saturday that the remaining "obstacles" were close to being resolved. He gave no further details, but the publication quoted anonymous Hamas officials as saying a deal is "reaching completion." Germany's new Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle arrives in Israel on Monday for a pre-arranged visit. Some reports have speculated that a deal, or at least its first stage, will be carried out by Friday in conjunction with the Id al-Adha Muslim holiday. Noam Schalit told the media on Sunday that he had received no officials reports of any progress. "At this moment, there is nothing new," he said. The deal would need to be approved by the cabinet and would be brought for a vote before its implementation, possibly as early as this week. On Sunday, Al-Arabiya reported that Israel could release as many as 1,000 security prisoners in exchange for Schalit. The Dubai-based broadcaster said that if the deal goes through, Schalit would return to Israel via Egypt. The report said that the list of prisoners included Fatah-Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, as well as other prisoners with "blood on their hands," who had been involved in terrorist attacks that killed Israelis. Hamas's announcement on Saturday that it was reining in all of the Gazan factions to prevent rocket fire is viewed as a step toward an agreement, since Hamas understands that a rocket attack with casualties could set back a deal indefinitely. Hamas hopes that the release of hundreds of prisoners will boost its popularity and help it win the next PA elections. On Sunday night, 10 IDF reservists who have worked for Schalit's release met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his Tel Aviv office for an hour and a half. It was a "positive, serious and open conversation," St.-Sgt. (res.) Tzachi Leon told The Jerusalem Post, adding that he understood that serious and difficult negotiations were under way. The group left with the feeling that Barak is determined to advance the negotiations and that releasing Schalit is important to him, Leon said. He did not want to say more for fear of prejudicing the negotiations. But even as Schalit supporters expressed cautious optimism that a breakthrough might be imminent, opponents of a prisoner swap quickly mobilized to prevent it. The Almagor Terror Victims Association plans to set up a protest tent in front of the Prime Minister's Residence on Monday and to hold a rally there on Wednesday. On Tuesday, it will lobby legislators in the Knesset. The group has long said that those released in such deals are likely to carry more more deadly attacks against Israelis. It has also said that such deals encourage groups such as Hamas to kidnap more soldiers. Lt.-Col. (res.) Dan Zion said that a prisoner release was "immoral" and could lead to a third intifada. The same government that believes it can stop Iran's nuclear program, can most certainly figure out how to rescue one soldier from Gaza without releasing prisoners who are likely to kill more Israelis, Zion said. He added that while he wants to see Schalit released, it should not be done at "any price." As someone who had led a squadron in the air force and had flown missions over enemy territory, he never expected the government to release terrorists to free him if he were captured, he said. But supporters of a swap have argued that the principle of returning soldiers to Israel is one of the cornerstones of IDF service, and failure to adhere to it would create a crisis in morale that would deter future soldiers from serving in the army. Leon said that should a deal be announced, Schalit supporters would immediately work to mobilize support for its implementation. "We will do all we can do," he said. Leon did not like the idea of releasing terrorists, but "there is no other choice," he said. AP contributed to this report.