Days before US President George W. Bush arrives in the region, officials in the Prime Minister's Office reported that "some progress" has been achieved in negotiations to release kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Although no substantial breakthrough can be reported at this stage, the officials said Saturday that the issue may be discussed during Bush's visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo.
The sources also stated that at this point the Palestinians were not pushing for a change in Israel's criteria for the release of prisoners "with blood on their hands" in exchange for Shalit.
Olmert's aides strongly rejected Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai's statement Saturday that jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti will be included in the list of prisoners to be freed as part of an exchange deal for Shalit.
"Barghouti's release is not on the agenda," they stressed, adding that Ofer Dekel, the PM's envoy on the captives' release, has not met with Barghouti in the last two months.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said in the meeting that "Israel views Marwan Barghouti as an extremely cold-blooded killer that should be in prison for the rest of his days."
Housing and Construction Minister Ze'ev Boim stated, "This is a man who led the Tanzim and served as Arafat's right-hand man. He must not be freed."
Vilnai: Willing to go a long way
In an interview to Israel Radio Saturday, Vilnai said that Barghouti was "likely to be on the list" of Palestinian security prisoners freed by Israel as part of a swap deal.
"Whenever we got our soldiers back, we released prisoners from the other side, terrorists from the other side. This is how it's done and this is what we've been doing since the 60s, when this phenomenon began," he said.
"This will be part of the process of Gilad's release, and my stance on the matter is clear and simple: I'm willing to go a long way to see a soldier like Gilad return home," Vilnai added.