Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
October 6, 2008 - 8:00pm

Security officials have warned that the time for making a deal for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit is running out. The officials told Haaretz that the more time that passes, the more things can go wrong and the greater the danger that an opportunity will be missed to bring Shalit home.

Talks are to open Tuesday in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah, mediated by the Egyptians, with an Egyptian-proposed package deal on the agenda that would include the release of Shalit.

In discussions in Israel regarding prisoners who could be released in exchange for Shalit, the names of terrorists were mentioned who committed major attacks in the early 1990s.

The officials said they believed Hamas would raise the price it would demand for Shalit as time goes by. A security official also said: "Many possibilities must be taken into account, not all of them under our control. The calm in the Gaza Strip could blow up, the Egyptians could reduce their involvement in the talks to concentrate on domestic issues, one of Gilad's guards could harm him. There could even be complications from a flu that they don't know how to treat property at Shifa," the official said, referring to a Gaza Strip hospital.

Officials said that as far as they know, no option now exists for a military option to release Shalit. Referring to the kidnapping, an official said, "there was a failure, and now the price has to be paid, even if it means releasing terrorists who are murderers."

The officials said that the decision would soon be put to the prime minister-designate, Tzipi Livni. "When she reads all the material, she will understand that time is not in our favor, and the responsibility for Gilad Shalit's welfare is first and foremost hers."

Livni has avoided making public statements recently about Shalit. In the past she has said she sees the state has having the supreme responsibility of bringing back captives, "all the more so when it is a question of living soldiers."

However, although Livni voted in favor of bringing back the bodies of reserve soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in exchange for Israel's release of Salim Kuntar, convicted of killing four Israelis in a 1979 terror attack, she objected to the way the talks were handled, including the fact that Israel publicly declared that the two were dead only at the end of the negotiations.

Sources in Livni's bureau said this week that she objects to public calls "to release [Israeli] POWs at any price."

However, Livni did support releasing prisoners defined as having "blood on their hands" as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority.

Livni reportedly told associates at a closed meeting recently that in the list of prisoners Hamas wants released in exchange for Shalit, "there are much more than one Kuntar." She also said she expects she will come under heavy public pressure to close a deal quickly, "including demonstrations in front of my house."

Activists for Shalit's release have indeed announced that they will begin to hold permanent vigils outside Livni's house, beginning this Friday.

These remarks make it difficult to ascertain where Livni will stand on a Shalit deal as prime minister.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opposed a massive prisoner release in exchange for Shalit, a position also supported by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has been in on some of the discussions, although he is not directly connected to the issue. To a lesser extent, Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin also objects to an extensive release.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi represent the opposite position, believing that time is of the essence and that Israel should be taking advantage of the ongoing cease-fire in the Gaza Strip to move ahead on a deal to release Shalit, even at a "heavy cost."

Barak said Monday at a memorial service for the Armored Corps dead, at Latrun: "We will do everything possible and appropriate to bring Gilad Shalit home. We will spare no efforts. That is our duty."

The committee, headed by Vice Premier Haim Ramon, dealing with the Hamas prisoner list recently added an additional eight names to the list of prisoners Israel is prepared to release, bringing the number to about 150 (according to another version, there are already 200 names on the list). Egypt is pressuring Israel to raise the number somewhat, to give it more room to maneuver vis-a-vis Hamas.

The committee has proposed releasing prisoners who committed major attacks during the first intifada, at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s. It was said that they did not belong to any terror group and are now fairly advanced in age, so that there is now a relatively low risk they will return to terror activities. Some of the names were later dropped because the committee members concluded that their cases were of emotional and symbolic significance to the Israeli public.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017