Shalit. Condition for truce?
Photo: Noam Rotem
Olmert. 'Shalit comes first'
Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO
Cabinet to make declarative decision on Shalit
National Security Cabinet ministers expected to set kidnapped soldier's release as condition for any truce agreement with Hamas, but PM Olmert fails to convene ministerial committee appointed to relax criteria for prisoner release. 'Are we willing to pay the price?' senior minister asks
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was expected to ask the National Security Cabinet on Wednesday to declare that kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit's release would be the first condition for any truce agreement with Hamas.
But the price Israel would have to pay if the Egyptian-mediated talks materialize into a deal was still unclear to the ministers.
The cabinet was scheduled to convene at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem at 8:30 am. Olmert set the meeting in order to approve one motion formed by himself, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The three officials and the professionals at their offices have been exchanging position papers on the issue and holding discussions by telephone since Saturday afternoon.
These discussions, however, have left an open dispute. The disagreement between Olmert and Barak revolves around the Palestinian prisoners who would be released in exchange for Shalit. According to the defense minister, "Even if Israel puts Shalit's release first, are we willing to pay the price demanded by Hamas?"
The prime minister, on his part, will ask the cabinet voice a clear statement. He himself has made such remarks at least five times in the past four days: "Gilad Shalit's release comes first, before the crossing and before a truce."
But the road to Shalit's release appears to be long. Olmert did not convene the ministerial committee headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon to relax criteria which would allow the release of an additional 120 to 140 senior Palestinian terrorists included in Hamas' list of demands, in addition to 230 which have already been approved.
Moreover, his stance was that such a discussion would not be held by the National Security Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday. In practice, the cabinet was expected to make a declarative decision which is likely to have a marginal contribution to the talks.
350 arch-terrorists to be freed?The defense minister, and perhaps other cabinet ministers with a security background – like Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Avi Dichter and Shaul Mofaz, were expected to raise the price issue.
"Are we willing to pay the price demanded by Hamas? Because that's the first thing the Egyptians will demand of us," a senior minister said on the eve of the meeting.
"Shalit has not been released for more than two years because Israel did not agree to the price. Shalit was not released after the first lull because we did not decide whether we were willing to pay or not. Has this issue been resolved and are we now willing to meet Hamas' demand of 1,200 to 1,400 prisoners in total, including 350 arch-terrorists with blood on their hands?" the minister asked.
The prime minister was expected to ask the cabinet to approve a motion of his own, which is believed to have not been accepted by both Livni and Barak, stating that Shalit's release would be the condition for all other clauses of the ceasefire agreement.
Even if this decision were to be approved by the cabinet, Israel would face Cairo empty handedly. As long as the Ramon committee fails to decide on relaxing additional criteria, and as long as the cabinet fails to decide on the price for Shalit's release, the process of returning the kidnapped soldier to Israel will be delayed.
The Egyptians have expressed their anger over the "Israeli zigzagging". Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal said Tuesday that the demand to advance the Shalit deal was only raised by Israel in the past few days.
The prime minister sounded skeptical on Tuesday when asked whether such a deal would be executed soon. "I hope these things end shortly, but even if they don’t end during my tenure, the foundations we've built will help Gilad Shalit's release," Olmert said.
Meanwhile, the Shalit family has increased its pressure on the cabinet to declare that their son's release would be the first condition for any truce agreement, for the opening of the crossings to the Gaza Strip or for any other diplomatic agreements.
"The family calls on the prime minister and on all cabinet members to insist on this condition and not to miss out on the current opportunity," Gilad Shalit's parents said in a statement.