Negotiators Return from Cairo Without Shalit Deal


shalit1Hopes for a breakthrough that would lead to the release of captive soldier Gilad Schalit were dashed tonight when the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement saying that Hamas had hardened its position. The statement was issued upon the return of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin and senior negotiator Ofer Dekel from Cairo tonight after two days of marathon Egyptian-mediated talks toward concluding a prisoner swap. Hamas has hardened its position, gone back on understandings that had been reached in the past year and raised extreme demands in spite of the attempts to advance the negotiations, the Prime Minister’s Office said. It added that Hamas had taken this position despite generous offers that were raised in the latest round of talks.A Hamas legislator in the Gaza Strip, however, said, “We are closer than ever to reaching a prisoner exchange agreement with Israel. The ball is now in Israel’s court.”

Dekel and Diskin had initially been scheduled to return late Sunday night and a cabinet meeting had been planned for Monday. In a move that fueled optimism that a deal was imminent, their return was delayed by a day to allow them to continue their efforts toward a deal.

But that hope faded after the negotiators landed in Israel Monday night and briefed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

An official from Olmert’s office then called Gilad’s father Noam to tell him that efforts to finalize a deal had failed.

Tomorrow, a government official is expected to update the Schalit family on the negotiations. Then, at 2 p.m. Olmert is due to convene a special cabinet session to give a full report to the 25 cabinet members.

The cabinet meeting had initially been scheduled for the morning, but was delayed until the afternoon to enable IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to attend. Ashkenazi cut short his trip to the US, where he was due to speak at a Friends of the IDF event, and was en route to Tel Aviv overnight.

For the past nine days, the Schalit family has been present in a protest tent outside the prime minister’s Yerushalayim residence in an effort to pressure Olmert into concluding a deal before he leaves office.

On Monday night, the disappointment in the tent was palatable. Noam Schalit left almost immediately after he heard of the failed negotiation efforts.

His friend and neighbor from his hometown of Mitzpe Hila in the upper Galilee Shimshon Leibman said that from the start Noam had tried not to be overly optimistic. It has been close to 1,000 days since Gilad was kidnapped and there have been a lot of ups and downs since then, Liebman said.

Both he and Hezi Mashita, who heads the Campaign to Free Gilad, said they had not given up and planned to hold a rally outside the Prime Minister’s office during the cabinet meeting.

“We are worried, but we still want to see Gilad return before Olmert leaves office,” said Mashita.

It’s possible, he said, that the prime minister’s statement is a negotiating tactic.

Olmert has said that he hopes to be the one to free Schalit.

Now that Dekel and Diskin have returned, Olmert has to decide whether the gaps between Israel and Hamas are too wide to bridge and whether in spite of his last ditch efforts the issue should be left to the next government.

Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu has been silent with respect to his views on the issue and is not expected to express an opinion until the end of the week.

Even as the prime minister’s office struck a pessimistic note, a statement on the Web site of Hamas’s military wing, said “Israel has agreed to free all the prisoners on the updated list.” It claims that the only point of disagreement is Israel’s demand to deport several of the prisoners.

A Hamas legislator did not rule out the possibility that the group would eventually agree to the deportation of a small number of prisoners to the Gaza Strip or a neighboring Arab country.

According to the legislator, Israel had already agreed to reopen the border crossings into Gaza following Schalit’s release.

In return, he added, Hamas would agree to a new cease-fire with Israel. He said that at Hamas’s request, the Egyptians have assured the movement that Israel would not try to kill or re-arrest any of the released prisoners.

During the negotiations, Hamas asked for the release of as many as 1,400 prisoners, of which 450 are known to have been involved in terror attacks that killed Israelis.

Reports have varied as to whether or not the list had been whittled down to just the 450, and whether Israel had agreed to free some or all. There was some indication that the disagreements between the two sides had been reduced to a final 25 or 50 names.

Hamas representatives said that Schalit would be handed over to the Egyptians as soon as the Israeli government accepted all of the movement’s demands.

They also warned against “excessive optimism,” saying it was premature to talk about a major breakthrough.

Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip and Cairo voiced cautious optimism regarding the prospects of striking a deal. They also warned that unless Israel met all of the group’s demands, the Israeli soldier would remain in captivity.

Ayman Taha, a spokesman for Hamas, said the two sides had yet to resolve a number of differences regarding the proposed deal.

“It will take a few days before we know if there is an agreement,” he said. “Hamas has presented its demands to the Egyptian mediators, who relayed them to the Israelis. We hope that the Zionist enemy will accept our demands in the coming days.”

Taha said the demands remained the same as when Schalit was kidnapped.

“We presented the same list of prisoners,” he said. “The list consists of many prisoners who were sentenced to lengthy terms or have been in prison for more than 20 years.”

The Hamas delegation to the Cairo talks have consisted of Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus , and Mahmoud Zahar and Nizar Awadallah from the Gaza Strip.

The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper claimed on Monday that Ja’bari Ahmed Ja’abari, commander of Hamas’s armed wing, arrived in Cairo over the weekend to participate in the negotiations over Schalit’s release. Ja’bari, who has long been wanted by Israel ‘s security forces, is said to be one of the few Hamas members who know where Schalit is being held.

Sources close to Hamas in the Gaza Strip said they did not know if Ja’bari was in Cairo.

During the day, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke of the ongoing Schalit negotiations at Monday’s Labor faction meeting.

“I want to give strength to the envoys in Cairo who are making the utmost efforts to bring an end to Gilad Schalit’s captivity and I wish them success,” he said.

As Schalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva, and his older brother Yoel, 25, waited for news, they were given a surge of hope by outgoing Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan.

During a visit to their protest tent, Eitan said he believed Diskin and Dekel would return from Cairo with a recommendation for a deal to release Schalit.

As he sat on a folding chair in the cold night under the white tent set up on the sidewalk, Yoel Schalit told the Post that it had been hard to wait one more day to hear news of the deal.

“There is a lot of expectation, stress and uncertainty,” he said.

“But if today’s efforts bring about Gilad’s release, we will accept it.”

If there is a deal, he said, he called on the cabinet to accept it and free his brother. “I want them to fulfill their obligation to a soldier they sent on a mission,” he said.

He added that his brother’s life was in danger every day that he remained in captivity, and said it was also harmful to Israeli society because it betrayed a basic tenet that says a soldier should never be left behind on the battlefield.

In the nine days since the Schalit family set up the protest tent, thousands of Israelis have streamed through to offer support and call for the young man’s release. Relatives of terror victims have also said they wanted Schalit home. Older teens have said that if the government failed to strike a deal, it would impact their loyalty to the IDF.

But not everyone agreed that freeing prisoners guilty of serious crimes was the way to go.

Among those calling on the government not to release terrorists with blood on their hands was MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union).

“Anyone who is ready to say that he demands the release of Gilad Schalit at any price is irresponsible,” said Eldad, who warned that the 450 terrorists would turn around and kill thousands of Israelis.

“Are we ready to pay with the blood of our children?” he asked.

Eldad added that if the deal goes through, hospitals should be put on alert. “We are going to have to prepare burying lots in our graveyards to absorb all those who will be killed,” he said.

Those who support the deal and who have visited the Schalits in their protest tent should be prepared to pay a visit to the families who will lose their loved ones in new terror attacks, he added.

Across the street from the tent, Almagor, the terror victim association that has opposed the move, continued its mostly solitary vigil to protest the deal.

It has said that 180 Israelis have already been killed by terrorists released in past deals. If there is a deal, it said, it is considering a petition to the High Court of Justice to block the cabinet from voting on the swap.

Among the few who stood in Almagor’s tent on Monday was Swery Zion, who lost his son Doron, 21, and his daughter Sharon , 24, in a terror attack in 2001. Sharon’s husband Yaniv, 25, was also killed in that attack.

“I felt that I had to come to scream against this deal,” Zion said.

The issue here is not revenge, he said. Nor did he oppose the release of Gilad by other means. “I just want to prevent another disaster.”

{JPost/Yair Israel}