Israel Hands Shalit Deal Response to Mediator


shalit1Israel gave German mediators late last night its response to Hamas demands involving the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit. A┬ásource close to the negotiations said the Israeli response, offered as marathon talks were held at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office, would be relayed to Hamas today. No further details were immediately available.

The top-level marathon meetings ended shortly after midnight Monday without an announcement of a decision over whether the forum of seven, comprising Netanyahu and six other senior cabinet ministers, had decided to accept or reject Hamas’ offer.

A decision to release the Palestinian prisoners could reshuffle Middle East politics in unpredictable ways and possibly ease Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The forum of seven convened after nightfall Monday for the fifth consecutive meeting on the issue over the last two days in a frenzy of activity that suggested a deal could be close.

The group was divided, however, with some ministers opposed freeing Palestinians convicted in fatal attacks, arguing they could kill again.

After more than four hours of talks, Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying only that instructions were given to the negotiating team about the continuation of efforts to bring Shalit home safe and sound.

There was no word of a decision, further meetings or steps.

The forum of seven deals with sensitive security affairs, and is made up of Netanyahu (Likud); Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor); Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu); Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin (Likud); Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon (Likud); Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas); and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor (Likud).

Meanwhile Monday, senior Yerushalayim officials and political sources said that Israel’s response to the prisoner exchange deal put forth by the German mediator will be positive but will include a number of points it wants to see changed. The most important of these is the number of Hamas prisoners to be released to the West Bank.

Israel would like to see most of the Palestinian prisoners from the West Bank, especially those considered the most dangerous, expelled to the Gaza Strip or abroad.

A senior Israeli source said Monday that “the time has come to bring this deal to an end.”

At around noon on Monday, Netanyahu met with Shalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, and told them a decision on the deal will be made in the hours to come.

“They hope the decision will be made tonight, and if not then, then tomorrow morning,” Aviva Shalit told reporters in Yerushalayim, where she was waiting in a protest tent opposite Netanyahu’s office.

Noam Shalit told reporters that Netanyahu had not given them any new information about the deal. “There’s no drama here, I have nothing new to say,” he said. “The process is ongoing and should end soon… We heard nothing new. [Netanyahu] updated us as much as he could. I am still not optimistic, nor am I pessimistic.”

After the meeting Netanyahu went home to rest. At 8 P.M. he reconvened the forum of seven – for the fifth time in just two days. The ministers were still in session at around midnight.

Senior sources say that the deal currently being negotiated is better for Israel than the proposal that was on the table when Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was prime minister.

“There have been a number of improvements,” one official said. “The proposal is less draconian than the one during Olmert’s days.”

A senior Israeli official said Israel’s “yes, but” is meant to shift the pressure to Hamas, so that if the deal falls through Israel would not be blamed.

One source told Fox News that the Netanyahu government inherited the deal when Israel was in a weaker position.

“The opening position of the talks was much worse than we had expected,” the source said. “First, we had to correct the errors of the past, but it was not possible to correct it all. At the same time we managed to gain a better result from that of the previous negotiating team.”

{Haaretz/Yair Israel}