Gilad Shalit hopes 'exaggerated'

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 3, 2009

Israeli leaders are playing down reports of a breakthrough in the talks over captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Meanwhile, the few details coming out from the talks in Cairo indicate that a breakthrough could be close.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s office has tried very hard in recent days to minimise any mention of the negotiations. Israeli officials also made an unsuccessful attempt to suppress a report by the German weekly Der Spiegel, which claimed that a German mediator had passed on a new Israeli offer to release 450 Hamas prisoners in return for Shalit, and an additional unspecified number of prisoners at a later date.

According to the report, Hamas had until September 1 to respond.

In an effort to counter the report, Mr Netanyahu said that “the reports are exaggerated. Talk of finalising a deal in days is unfounded.”

The Israeli concern is that a media circus surrounding the talks could embolden Hamas to harden its position. On Tuesday, Defence Minister Ehud Barak sounded a warning note when he said that Shalit’s release “will not be at any price. I suggest that people stop whining.” He added that some of the reports and public statements were “not helpful”.

The most significant detail emerging from the reports is the inclusion of the German mediator, at Israel’s request.

The senior intelligence official, whose name has not been disclosed, is trusted by both sides.

The arrival of the Hamas military chief, Ahmad Jabari, in Cairo and the expected arrival of political leader Khaled Mashal, both hardliners, is also seen as an indication that a decision could be reached soon.

Hamas has suffered in recent months an erosion in its popularity in the wake of the poor conditions in the Gaza Strip. It is anxious to show some gains and to be allowed to import building materials into Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu also has an interest in reaching a quick agreement as Sergeant Shalit’s release will boost his standing with the Israeli public before he meets President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York at the end of the month.

Last updated: 5:09pm, July 6 2010