Envoys to Olmert: Shalit Negotiations Failed

By Avi Issacharoff and Barak Ravid (Haaretz) and Haaretz Service

Published March 16, 2009.
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Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s special envoy, Ofer Dekel, informed Olmert Monday night that the negotiations for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit have failed.

Diskin and Dekel reported that over the past few days Hamas has toughened its stance in talks over a possible prisoner swap, raising its demands and backtracking on previous understandings.

The envoys left Cairo on Monday evening following days of intensive discussions. Diskin and Dekel were expected to inform Olmert upon their return of significant rifts remaining between the two sides, according to Hamas and Israeli sources familiar with the negotiations.

Israel and Hamas were apparently coming close to an agreement on the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for Shalit. According to the sources, the remaining brunt of contention was which of these prisoners would be freed to the West Bank

After hearing from Dekel and Diskin on Monday evening, Olmert was to decide whether to hold another round of indirect negotiations with Hamas.

“There is progress and there is a new [Israeli] proposal, but there are still some differences blocking conclusion of a deal,” a senior Hamas official told Reuters.

Meanwhile, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi cut short his visit to the United States in order to take part in a special cabinet session regarding the Shalit deal.

The cabinet was supposed to convene Monday morning to discuss the details of the deal, the first session of the sort since Shalit was taken captive was kidnapped in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. However, that meeting was postponed to Tuesday to give Dekel and Diskin more time to negotiate a deal.

“The government will be meeting [Tuesday] morning and the ministers will be briefed on the negotiations,” Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev said. “If there is a need to take decisions, decisions can be taken.”_

Hamas: No new developments in Shalit deal

Meanwhile, Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya on Monday denied reports that progress had been reached over a deal to free Shalit, telling Haaretz’s correspondent in Egypt that the media had been embellishing news of recent developments in the affair.

Sources close to indirect Israel-Hamas negotiations over Shalit told Haaretz earlier Monday that a deal for the soldier’s release could be reached within 24 hours.

The Egyptian-brokered negotiations had continued into Monday after Israel extended its Sunday deadline to Hamas for another 24 hours.

Sources said that Israel and Hamas were still negotiating solutions to a number of outstanding issues until the end of Monday’s talks. The sources cited as example Israel’s demand that some of the Palestinian prisoners freed in the deal be relocated to Syria, and not to the Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan voiced optimism Monday that Israel’s negotiators would return from Cairo with a deal.

“It is possible to assume that [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s emissaries in Cairo will return to Israel with a deal for Shalit’s return,” said Eitan, speaking on Army Radio.

“After this everyone can express remorse and say ‘I told you so,’ but let’s just wait another day and see what the results are,” added Eitan. “I assume that the results will be positive. If an agreement is brought for cabinet approval, I have no doubt that it will vote in favor.”

Report: Hamas military chief running Shalit talks

Hamas was represented in the talks for the first time by top military commander Ahmed al-Jaabari, a sign, sources said, of their seriousness._

The pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat reported Monday that Jabri took his first trip outside of the Palestinian territories four days ago to head the group’s side in the Cairo talks.

Jabri has been responsible for Shalit’s well-being in Gaza as well as safeguarding the secrecy of his hiding place. According to the report, which is based on Palestinian sources described as “credible,” senior Hamas officials Mahmoud Zahar and Nizar Awadallah are also involved in the talks.

The newspaper also reported that Israel is willing to release 300 Palestinian prisoners out of 450 on a list presented by Hamas, but maintains its opposition to the remaining 150, some of whom have been convicted of involvement in terrorist attacks.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, meanwhile, said on Monday that there were Palestinians jailed in Israel who were not up for release as part of a deal for Shalit.

He told Israel Radio that Israel had “additional ways” of pressuring Hamas, adding that if the negotiations involving prisoners currently held in Israel failed, they would be renewed over prisoners to be held in Israel in the future.

Abu Mujahad, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, told Haaretz Sunday that something is happening in the negotiations over Shalit, but since Israel has in the past reneged at the last minute on deals that were almost completed, neither his organization nor Hamas was willing to make any statements on the matter. The Resistance Committees are one of the three groups that originally kidnapped Shalit. Abu Mujahad was in Cairo for Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks with the other Palestinian factions.

If the Cairo talks lead to a breakthrough, the ministers are expected to vote on Tuesday on the outlines of a prisoner swap. If a deal is presented by Olmert and supported by Dekel and Diskin, it is likely to be approved by a large majority of the cabinet.

Gilad Shalit’s brother, Yoel, said Sunday that, “These are fateful hours for Gilad. The decision is whether he will live or be left to his fate. From our point of view, there is no other opportunity.”

Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, who visited the tent where the family is holding a vigil near the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, said he would support a prisoner swap if it came to a cabinet vote. “I have voiced my opinion in the past as well that everything must be done to bring Gilad home,” he said. “That is the moral obligation of the State of Israel and of the present government.”

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