Top Israeli ministers have ended a fifth round of talks in two days and are declining to commit to a prisoner swap with Hamas that would see hundreds of Palestinians exchanged for a captured soldier.
The seven senior ministers of Israel’s security cabinet convened at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office to debate the conditions of the swap for Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, held in the Gaza Strip for more than three years.
“The prime minister and the ministers have given instructions to the team of (Israeli) negotiators to continue their efforts with a view to Gilad Shalit returning to his home safe and sound,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said, without elaborating.
Israeli public radio said the statement meant that Netanyahu was for the moment refusing to approve the deal which would have seen Israeli negotiator Hagai Haddas present it to the German mediator who has been conducting indirect talks between Israel and Hamas.
Shalit’s parents demand action
Earlier, Netanyahu met with Shalit’s parents, who had made an impassioned plea for ministers to agree to a swap.
“I am not pessimistic but nor am I optimistic,” father Noam Shalit told reporters after the meeting.
“I hope that they will decide today,” the soldier’s mother Aviva said earlier. “And that each minister knows that his decision will decide whether Gilad lives or dies.”
In a letter on Sunday, Shalit’s parents implored the government to do all it could to free their son, 23, who was seized by Gaza militants in June 2006.
“We believe that the next few days are fateful for our beloved son Gilad,” Noam and Aviva Shalit wrote to the premier. “We watch the actions of the government of Israel with deep trepidation and great hope.”
The ministers were reportedly deadlocked, with three in favour of accepting Hamas’s latest proposal, three against and Netanyahu undecided but leaning toward opposition, media reported.
The premier insists that no militants convicted of involvement in deadly attacks against Israeli civilians be allowed to return to the West Bank, and instead be deported to Gaza or a third country, an official told AFP.
Speculation has mounted in Israel over the past several weeks that the Jewish state and Hamas may be approaching an agreement after months of mediation by Germany, which has a history of successful mediation efforts for prisoner exchanges between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
Prior to the involvement of the German mediator, Egypt had tried for months to negotiate an agreement, but with no success.
Adding to the speculation of an imminent deal, Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Cairo’s pointman for the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas, held talks in Israel on Sunday with senior officials.
Both Israel and Hamas have imposed censorship on comments on the negotiations over Shalit, who has become a cause celebre in the Jewish state that has a history of freeing prisoners for its soldiers or their bodies.
Hamas and two smaller Palestinian militant groups captured Shalit in June 2006 when they tunnelled into Israel out of Gaza and attacked an army post, killing two soldiers.