Israel discusses Egyptian proposal; Cairo optimistic
Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Minister Livni and Defense Minister Barak meet to review offer for 18-month truce in Gaza, prisoner exchange deal. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman says 'there are positive signs that an agreement will be reached in the next days'
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Sunday morning with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza and for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
Olmert later tried to lower expectation, telling the cabinet meeting that the reports on the media were "exaggerating in their definition of the situation of the deal for Shalit's release".
"I woke up to a series of reports on Gilad Shalit, but these issues were not released from my office although they are being coordinated by me.The publications are unnecessary and are putting the possibility of reaching an agreement at risk. We must be cautious, and when I have something to tell the public I will. It's clear that we all hope for Gilad's return home."
Livni refused to disclose what was discussed in the meeting. "I am responsible to bring Gilad Shalit back home. The price of the public discourse harms this matter."
Barak said that "in regards to Shalit, we are committed to exert supreme efforts, and cannot talk anymore because this does not help his release. Hamas has been hit as it never has before, it's picking up the pieces, and therefore we must talk to the Egyptians who are also handling the smuggling and the international efforts concerning them."
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said during the cabinet meeting that "Gilad Shalit must be released soon. The price is inconvenient, but it must be paid. The opening of the crossings must be linked to Shalit's release, or at least allowing the Red Cross to see him."
Gilad Shalit's father, Noam, told Ynet on Sunday morning that the family has not received any information on a possible deal and that he had yet to be briefed on such a deal by an authorized source.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told AFP on Sunday that his country was hopeful that a Gaza truce accord between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas can be reached "very soon,"
"There are positive signs that in the next few days we will reach an understanding on a truce and and a partial reopening of crossing points (into Gaza)," Zaki said.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Hamas said it expected an agreement with Israel on the the reopening of border crossings into the Gaza Strip "within the next few days."
A Hamas delegation left Cairo on Saturday for talks on the ceasefire and Zaki said they would return Monday.
Meanwhile, the organization leading the public campaign for Shalit's release said they had received no information on progress made in the talks. The organization's head, Hezi Meshita, said that an attempt was being made to hold a briefing with one of the people involved in the negotiations later this week.
"This is why we have no indication whether this is a real move or just rumors, as we've experienced in the past," he added.
Another organization member, Shimshon Liebman, said that "our working assumption is that the Gilad Shalit issue must end by the time the current government ends its tenure. We have been relatively quiet so as not to disrupt the talks. The remarks being voiced in recent days give as a basis for tiny, cautious optimism."
Reuters quoted diplomats as saying the Egyptian proposal to stabilize post-war Gaza calls for an extended truce between Israel and Hamas, a prisoner exchange and the initial opening of at least two of the enclave's border crossings.
Under the proposal, Israel would halt attacks in the Gaza Strip and Hamas would stop cross-border rocket fire for up to 18 months. That would take the place of a shaky January 18 truce that ended Israel's 22-day offensive in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed. Fourteen Israelis have died since December 27, when the fighting broke out.
In the second phase of the proposal, Israel would agree to swap Palestinian prisoners in its custody for Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Gaza militants in 2006. Palestinian officials have reported progress in those talks.
The London-based Arabic-language al-Hayat newspaper also reported that Israel has agreed to release some 1,000 prisoners, including Hamas ministers and parliament members. Palestinian sources in Gaza told the paper Israel would probably agree to free some 25 prisoners with blood on their hands.
Hamas insists that the list would include eight senior prisoners, including Ahmed Saadat, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and former Fatah Secretary-General in the West Bank Marwan Barghouti.
According to one of the sources, "The ruling coalition in Israel, and especially Kadima and Labor, is working to advance the deal by Tuesday in order to improve their situation in the elections at the Likud's expense."
In the third stage of the Egyptian proposal, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction, which runs the larger West Bank, and Hamas would agree to try to negotiate a unity government of technocrats that would be in place until an election can be held.
Ahiya Raved, AFP and Reuters contributed to this report