The efforts to secure a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas are to proceed through two different channels in a last-gasp attempt to finalise the deal before a new right-wing government is formed in Israel.
Negotiations are taking place simultaneously in Cairo and Europe through joint mediation by the French and Qatari governments, both of which are eager to deepen their involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
The existence of a second channel was confirmed this week by a senior Hamas leader. Younis el-Astel said that a deal on exchanging hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of them convicted for the murder of Israelis, in return for the release of captured Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, had almost been agreed.
However, the French-Qatari talks were cancelled at the last moment after the intervention of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. The PA fears that a successful deal will increase support for Hamas among the Palestinian public.
The Egyptian government is also hostile to the French-Qatari talks as it wants to remain the sole mediator between the two sides, and Israeli officials suspect it also played a part in scuppering the deal.
Meanwhile, the Cairo talks are set to resume this weekend when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s special representative, Ofer Dekel, arrives. The Egyptian-brokered talks included a proposed prisoner exchange and discussion of an extended ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
The deal suffered a setback last week, when Hamas insisted that the crossings into Gaza be opened before a prisoner exchange, and the Israeli cabinet passed a resolution saying that no truce would be signed with Hamas before the release of Mr Shalit. Tensions between Mr Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak also led to the suspension this week of Israel’s previous negotiator, Amos Gilad, and his replacement by Mr Dekel.