'America is blocking the Shalit exchange'

The talks over a prisoner deal in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit could be released are set to resume over the next few days with the return of the German mediator to the region.
The talks have been frozen for almost two months following Hamas's failure to respond to Israel's latest proposal to release almost 500 Palestinians prisoners, with a quarter of them sent into exile abroad, away from the West Bank. Last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Russia that this was Israel's last offer.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak also emphasised last week that "we will not pay any price for Gilad's release".

Gerhard Conrad, the senior German diplomat and intelligence official who for the last nine months has acted as a trusted mediator between the two sides, is about to resume his efforts to reach a deal.

Last month, sources on both Israeli and Palestinian sides blamed Mr Conrad for going too far and committing each side to offers they had not agreed to, but in recent days a new reason for the delay in the agreement has emerged.

The US is worried that the deal will boost Hamas

In a speech at the Jerusalem Conference last week, Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, blamed the American administration for trying to block the deal.

"We are hearing voices from the administration that to say the least, are expressing discomfort with the deal," said Mr Shalit. "They are hinting to the Israeli decision-makers not to carry out the deal because it may harm the standing of the head of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, and destabilise the Authority."

A Hamas spokesman told the Al-Arabiya channel that "a deal was about to be signed and, because of American intervention, the Israelis backed out".

The Americans are worried that the deal, which will ultimately release 1,000 prisoners, will significantly boost Hamas's popularity among the Palestinians, but the gathering consensus within the Israeli defence establishment is that the security situation will not be dramatically altered. The Palestinian Authority's security apparatus is currently co-operating closely with the IDF to keep Hamas influence in the West Bank at a minimum.

The assumption is that after a few weeks of celebrations at the return of the imprisoned Hamas leaders, they will fail to resurrect their terror networks.

On Tuesday morning, Noam Shalit and a group of volunteers demonstrated at the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza and blocked the supply convoys going through. They placed stickers on the fuel trucks going to Gaza, calling on the Palestinian public to pressure Hamas to agree to a deal. One of the stickers said "Return Shalit - You will get a thousand of your sons in return."

    Last updated: 4:28pm, February 25 2010