According to reports, Israel’s senior negotiator in the talks to free captured soldier Gilad Shalit was severely criticised by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for overstepping his mandate.
The negotiator, Hagai Hadas, had initially agreed to some of Hamas’s demands before being censured by Mr Netanyahu, who appeared to blame him for offering too much to Hamas.
This, according to Israeli news sources, led to the breakdown of the German-brokered talks between Israel and Hamas six weeks ago. Shalit’s family will decide next week whether to renew the demonstrations calling on the government to do everything in its power to secure their son’s release.
A month and a half ago, all the indications were that a deal was imminent. The German negotiator, Gerhard Conrad, shuttled between Jerusalem, Gaza, Cairo and Damascus, cajoling the two sides towards an agreement. It seemed that the Israelis and Hamas were closing in on a deal which would see 490 prisoners, many of them convicted murderers, go free in return for Shalit, and then another similar number released at a later date.
Hamas was to get the original number of prisoners it had demanded, but not all the senior figures they wanted would be let out.
Before Mr Conrad returned home for Christmas, he delivered Israel’s “final offer”, which had been reached after a marathon of meetings by the Israeli security cabinet, and finally authorised by Mr Netanyahu.
Four weeks have passed and Hamas has yet to deliver its answer, though a number of the movement’s leaders have said that they would not give up their demands and threatened to kidnap more Israeli soldiers.
Mr Netanyahu’s final offer was significantly less than what they were led to expect in the final round of talks with Mr Hadas. A number of names they expected to be on the list were taken off, at the insistence of Israeli security chiefs. In addition, a quarter of those Israel agreed to release were to be exiled, instead of going home to the West Bank, where Israel believes they will soon return to terror activities.
Mr Conrad is now back in the region, but the silence from both sides over the last few weeks is being interpreted as a sign that the talks are bogged down.
A source close to the talks said this week that “Hamas still has a huge interest in a successful outcome of the talks. After raising such high expectations of hundreds of prisoners returning home, they need to deliver. No amount of belligerent speeches will cover that failure if the talks break down again.”
Israeli sources insisted that the government had gone as far as it can.
Gilad Shalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva, met Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Mr Hadas this week for an update. Over the past two months, they had asked their supporters to refrain from public demonstrations and allow the government to pursue the talks without any disturbance.