The political turmoil in Israel and the pressure on the Hamas leadership following Operation Cast Lead have brought about the first major breakthrough in talks over the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the main broker between the two sides, has said that an agreement could be achieved by next week.
Two weeks ago, Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam, met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris and received information from him confirming that his son was still alive following the fighting last month in Gaza. This was the spark which reignited the talks with the Egyptians, backed up by the French and Turkish governments.
In a series of meetings held in Cairo, Hamas leaders and Israel’s chief negotiator, Amos Gilad, met with Egyptian officials and hammered out the basic details of the deal. Israel would agree to the gradual reopening of the border crossings and release, in stages, up to a thousand prisoners — including a number of convicted murderers. Hamas is understood to have agreed to release Gilad Shalit to the Egyptian go-betweens and to commit to a ceasefire in Gaza for up to two years.
Hamas has previously refused Israeli demands that the talks over renewing the truce and the reopening of the border crossings into the Gaza Strip should be connected to a prisoner exchange deal including Shalit.
However, pressure on Hamas leaders from President Mubarak appears to have forced them to relent. The Egyptian leader made clear to Hamas that after a new, right-wing government was formed in Israel, they would have no chance of securing a better deal. President Mubarak was backed up by signals from the Israeli government that he had a short window of opportunity while Ehud Olmert was still interim prime minister.
In the long weeks that it will take to form a new government following this week’s closely contested elections, it is expected that there will be time to push through an agreement over the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners — something that in normal circumstances would be less palatable to the Israeli public.
There remain two main sticking points. Israel still objects to releasing a number of the Palestinian prisoners on the list who were involved in killing dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings. According to reports in the Arab media, three are Hamas members with personal responsibilty for organising attacks, including Abdullah Barghouti, Ibrahim Hamad and Abas al-Sayid, the man considered to be responsible for the 2002 Passover massacre in Netanya.
A fourth is Ahmed Sa’adat, General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was charged with involvement in the assassination of former Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
Israel, however, has tentatively agreed to the release of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences for his involvement in terror attacks. On the Palestinian side, it is still unclear whether the entire Hamas leadership supports the deal. The Hamas representatives negotiating in Cairo were leaders of the movement’s Gazan faction. The more hardline head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Mashal, who is based in Damascus, has yet to give his consent to the deal.
In Israel, even Likud Leader Binyamin Netanyahu has assured the government that he will support them if they reach a deal before a new coalition is sworn in.
However some in the defence establishment warn that this deal gives a pretext for Hamas to celebrate their “victory” following the Gaza operation.