Cabinet approves deal with Hamas: Schalit to return home

Deal passes 26-3 in cabinet vote; Israel to release 1,000 prisoners in two-stage process, including 1/3 serving life sentences; Netanyahu: "My heart is with the families of terror victims."

Gilad Schalit in uniform 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Gilad Schalit in uniform 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Exactly 1,934 days after Hamas kidnapped Gilad Schalit near Kerem Shalom on the border with Gaza, the cabinet met in a dramatic meeting Tuesday night, approving a deal for his release.
Twenty-six ministers voted to approve the prisoner exchange deal signed with Hamas, with only three voting against the deal. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau voted against the deal.
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"The Jewish people is a special people, responsible for one another," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the opening of the cabinet meeting. "Our sages teach that those who save one Jewish life, it's  as if they have saved an entire world.  Today I am bringing a proposal for the saving of Gilad Schalit in order to bring him back, finally, after five years, to his home, to Israel."
The cabinet vote brought close to conclusion a saga that tortured the Schalit family -  and the country -  for more than five years, and which made the kidnapped soldier, now 25, a household name in large parts of the world.
In return for Schalit, Israel will release 1,027 prisoners, some 400 of them prisoners serving long sentences for some of the worst terrorist atrocities in the country's history.
Netanyahu: Deal was in works for weeks
Netanyahu said that the deal, which has been in the works for weeks, was initiated in Cairo on Thursday of last week, and Tuesday received the final approval.
The framework for this deal has been on the table for years, but was rejected as Israel demanded that the terrorists with blood on their hands be deported to Gaza or abroad, and Hamas demanded that all the names they submitted be on the list.
In the final analysis, both sides showed flexibility, with Israel agreeing to let hundreds, but not all, of the released terrorist remain in the West Bank, and Hamas dropped some of the names on its list.
Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yoram Cohen said that the Shin Bet would be able to deal with those returning to the West bank. His predecessor, Yuval Diskin, was adamantly opposed to letting the prisoners return to the West Bank.
Cohen, as well as the heads of the Mossad and the IDF all expressed support for the prisoner exchange deal at the cabinet meeting.
The Shin Bet chief said that while the deal to free Schalit would be difficult for Israel, there is no better alternative in the near future to bring the captured soldier home. "There is no question that for many families who lost loved ones to terror this is a difficult deal. If we want to bring Schalit home though, this is the way," he said.
Netanyahu told the cabinet that the negotiations were restarted in recent weeks through Egyptian mediation. "There exists a built-in tension between the desire to bring a kidnapped soldier or citizen home, and the need to preserve the security of Israeli citizens," he said, adding that the current  agreement expressed the right balance between those considerations.
"This is a difficult decision," he said. "My heart is with the families of the terror victims. I understand their suffering, and their distress, because I am one of them. But leadership is judged in moments like this by the ability to make difficult, but correct, decisions."
Netanyahu said that with all the changes taking place in the region, "I don't know if in the near future we would be able to reach a better agreement or an agreement at all. It might be that the window of opportunity would have been closed, and we would not have been able to return him at all."
Egypt instrumental in negotiating deal
The prime minister thanked the Egyptian government as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German mediator who played an important role in securing the deal.
Schalit negotiator David Meidan on Tuesday provided some details of efforts to reach a deal with Hamas to release Schalit, saying Egypt was "very helpful" in facilitating the proposed exchange. He referred to the deal as a "masterpiece."
"There were six rounds of talks...we did this over several months in complete secrecy and we managed to hold them under the radar," Meidan said at the cabinet meeting.
"In the last round, the Shin Bet came in and we initialed a deal without names last week," Meidan satated. "
He added that the final marathon round of talks "took 24 hourswithout sleep," beginning Monday at 9 a.m. and ending Tuesday at 8 a.m.
The big breakthrough in the talks came in July this year. In July, Hamas came to Israel with a document showing a new level of seriousness.
One of the main factors for Hamas in accepting the deal was the fact that the group had lost its headquarters in Damascus amid unrest in Syria, according to Meidan. In mediating the deal, Egypt apparently used the loss as leverage to put pressure on Hamas to accept the deal.
Netanyahu said he invited Schalit's father, Noam, to his home in the morning to convey the news, and also spoke by phone to Schalit's mother and grandfather. "I said to them that I am fulfilling my promise and I am returning to them their son and grandson. I am happy to have been able to fulfill the goal of redeeming captives, and if all goes well, Gilad will return to Israel in the coming days to his family and people."
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