Shalit for Barghouti?


bargouti-shalitPensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan said Sunday that a deal to secure the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit could be sealed before the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s term. “It is very possible that the whole process with Hamas, particularly with regard to Gilad Shalit, could occur during the tenure of the current prime minister,” said Eitan, a member of the political-security cabinet who has been participating in talks over Shalit’s release.Shalit has been in Palestinian captivity since he was captured by Gaza militants in a 2006 cross-border raid.

Eitan said that although Israeli elections to be held Tuesday will mark the start of a new government, “our experience shows that it will take about six weeks before a new coalition is formed.”

Meanwhile, Hamas officials said today that while Egyptian-mediated talks over a cease-fire deal with Israel in the Gaza Strip were progressing, there were no significant developments in an agreement to free Shalit works.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza that a cease-fire deal could be reached within a few days. “I believe we can say that the coming days will witness the signing of a ceasefire agreement that secures a dignified and secure life for our Palestinian eople like all the other people in the region,” Barhoum said.

The pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat today that Israel has agreed to free jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as part of a deal to secure the release of Shalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in a 2006 cross-border raid.

Mohammed Nazzal, a member of Hamas’ exiled leadership, said that the group’s delegation to Egypt was waiting for a positive development from the Israelis over the negotiations, but denied that there was anything new to report in the Shalit case.

Nazzal also said Hamas would not rush into any sort of agreement just because of the upcoming Israeli elections this Tuesday.

“We do not set our agenda according to others’ calendars or schedules, meaning that we are not concerned about the Israeli elections … we are concerned about signing a decent deal,” he told al-Jazeera.

According to Al-Hayat, Barghouti will be among the 1,000 Palestinian prisoners Israel will free in an exchange. But the London-based paper also said that Israel has refused to release Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Ahmed Sa’adat.

Israel has also agreed to release 350 of the 372 prisoners on a list presented by Hamas, Al-Hayat reported.

Barghouti is the former head of Tanzim, the armed-wing of Fatah. He was arrested in a raid by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002 and in 2004 an Israeli court sentenced him to five life sentences for five murders of Israeli citizens.

The report came as significant progress had been made in the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas regarding a new cease-fire formula in the Gaza Strip that will also include the reopening of the border crossings and the release of Shalit.

However, much still depends on Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal in Damascus approving the deal.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed on Sunday that “supreme efforts” are being made to secure Shalit’s release in the near future.

The defense minister said he was doing his utmost to bring Shalit home, but warned that Israel would have to pay a heavy price.

“We’re not talking about hocus-pocus in which we roll the dice and get Gilad Shalit in return for a nice smile or a gesture,” he said. “In the end, attached to it is a heavy and painful price that we’ll have to decide on.”

In a separate radio interview, Barak said he did not think Shalit would be home in time for the election on Tuesday, but hoped he would be freed by the time the current government’s tenure ends in several weeks.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to lower expectations, however saying media reports in recent days of an impending release were overblown and damaging.

“This complex and sensitive process requires due caution regarding all that is said,” Olmert said. “When there is something to inform the public, I will do so. It is clear that we all hope that the day when Gilad Shalit returns to his family will come as soon as possible. We will not slacken in our efforts to achieve this.”

On Motzoei Shabbos, Israel’s “troika” – composed of Prime Minister Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – held an unusual meeting at the Defense Ministry to discuss the negotiations for a cease-fire deal in the Gaza Strip, along the lines proposed by Egypt.

The meeting also included Minister Rafi Eitan, whom Olmert recently asked to join the meetings involving information on Shalit.

A senior political source said yesterday that “there is still no decision on Shalit, mostly because of Hamas’ need to form a joint position on the matter.”

The same source also said that any reports that a deal may be at hand are exaggerated. “As soon as there is something to talk about, the political-security cabinet will meet,” the source added. “So far the matter has not reached the decision-making stage.”

The prime minister held a series of meetings on Shalit late last week. A senior political source said that during the talks a number of new ideas were introduced with regard to a potential deal. “In recent days, efforts on Shalit’s behalf have been accelerated,” the source said.

The breakthrough was achieved last week during talks in Cairo between Egypt’s chief of intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, and Hamas representatives, and later in talks between the senior Egyptian mediator and Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s political-security bureau.

Gilad returned from Cairo Thursday with what appears to be a detailed agreement for a cease-fire and he is expected to go back to Egypt in a day or two.

Yesterday, a senior Hamas figure from the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud al-Zahar, traveled to Cairo, in what was his first public appearance since going underground during Operation Lead Cast. He was accompanied by Hamas parliamentarian Salah al-Bardawil as well as Nizar Awadalla, who handles the Shalit case for Hamas. Accompanying them was the spokesman for the Hamas government, Taher al-Nunu.

Zahar told the Arabic language satellite television station Al-Jazeera on Saturday that Hamas will evaluate the Israeli proposals and will offer its final response to it.

The senior Hamas official will also travel with his delegation to Damascus for talks with Meshal and his aides. Their meeting is considered crucial on whether a deal will be finalized.

At this point the following are believed to be the main points of the deal that is being formulated:

-A cease-fire for 18 months in the Gaza Strip (unrelated to the West Bank). Once the cease-fire comes to an end, it will be possible to extend it for another 18 months. Hamas has promised to prevent attacks from the Gaza Strip and the IDF will avoid attacks of its own.

-A full reopening of the crossings between Israel and the Strip, which means more than mere humanitarian assistance will be allowed to cross into Gaza. Israel has conditioned a full reopening of the crossings on the release of Gilad Shalit.

-Gilad Shalit will be returned to Israel in the near future, in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

-Reopening of the Rafah border crossing. Following Egyptian insistence, the crossing will be run by Palestinian Authority officials loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. However, unlike a similar 2005 agreement, Hamas will be allowed to maintain a presence at the crossings.

This formula appears to be acceptable to Israel, Egypt and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, under Ismail Haniyeh. The main obstacle at this point may lie in Damascus, since Meshal may block it. Also opposed to the formula under negotiation is the head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Ja’abari.

{Haaretz/News Agencies/Yair Israel}