This weekend Israel’s “troika” — composed of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud 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 Saturday night also included Minister Rafi Eitan, whom Olmert recently asked to join the meetings involving information on Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held hostage by Hamas since June 2006.
A senior political source said on Saturday 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.”
On Thursday the prime minister held a series of meetings on Shalit. 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, Gen. 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.
On Saturday, 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 upon 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.