Israel and Hamas Inch Toward Completion of Shalit Swap


gilad-shalit-smallAfter so many false hopes, it’s hard to believe that this time the story of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit will end differently, but us Yidden never give up hope. ¬†And our bitachon remains strong and steadsfast. It¬†seems that in the coming days negotiations over Shalit’s release are again reaching a crucial juncture. The reports by the foreign media, along with mounting tension among political officials, show that negotiations may be close to a resolution.

If indeed the parties can bridge the last remaining significant gaps, according to the Arabic-language press, the deal may be even closer than we think. Some Arab newspapers have even set a date for the release, this Friday, Id al-Adha – the Muslim feast of the sacrifice.

Two more developments might presage progress toward a deal: Hamas said yesterday it had reached an agreement with the Palestinian factions on a halt to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on nearby Israeli communities. And President Shimon Peres announced that he would meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak today in Cairo.

The Israeli side has maintained silence, for the most part, with censorship enforced to a greater extent than usual. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is also a member of the inner cabinet, said over the weekend that he hoped to see Shalit home “within three months.” A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, spoke of “many reports, some true and some disinformation.” He pledged that “we would spare no effort” in bringing the abducted soldier home.

A few times this year, indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas seemed to be coming closer. So far, Israel’s refusal to accede to Hamas’ demand to release some of the most heinous Hamas murderers, along with Hamas’ tactical considerations in its struggle with the Palestinian Authority, has blocked an agreement.

But one significant component of the picture has changed: the involvement of the German intermediary last spring, around when Netanyahu was forming his cabinet. Another milestone was the “small deal” in early October – the release of 20 Palestinian women prisoners in exchange for a video of Shalit. Hamas could gauge by Israel’s consent to this deal that a prisoner exchange was possible.

Perhaps more important was the fact that the video of Shalit would not have been aired in Israel without Netanyahu’s approval. The prime minister knew that broadcasting the video would produce an outpouring of sympathy for the Shalit family and increased support for a deal, even at a heavy cost. Opinion polls bore this out.

Still, Netanyahu will need all his powers of persuasion, along with the support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, to push such a fateful decision through a cabinet with so many right-wing members. Some of them, like Benny Begin and Moshe Ya’alon, say they oppose the release of murderers.

Last March, just hours before the Olmert government left office, the two sides disagreed over 135 names among the 450 “major” prisoners Hamas was demanding. And they are just some of the prisoners the abductors expect will be released as part of a deal. Last week Fox News reported that Hamas had sent the names of 70 prisoners to replace ones whom Israel had refused to release.

{Yair Israel/Haaretz}