Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff
Haaretz (Opinion)
November 30, 2009 - 1:00am

What can we learn from the state's response Sunday to a High Court of Justice petition demanding the publication of which Palestinian prisoners would be freed in exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit? Not much.

The state prosecution says that both parties have committed to keeping a lid on the details as long as negotiations are underway. The new information, to the extent that there is any, relates to the number of Palestinian prisoners Israel is officially saying will be released in a deal: 980, in two stages: 450 heavy-duty prisoners whom Hamas wants freed, and another 530 terrorists whom Israel will select "as a gesture to the Palestinian people."

Throughout the negotiations, Hamas spokesmen insisted that 1,400 prisoners would be released in a swap. Has Israel gotten Hamas to fold on this demand? That's doubtful. For instance, the state's response doesn't make it clear whether the 530 prisoners include Palestinian women and youths. More prisoners may be released after the first 980. And the state's response doesn't even mention the hundreds of prisoners Israel is likely to release in the future, in a bid to furbish the image of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In other words, if the Shalit deal goes through, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners will be released in the coming months, possibly close to 2,000.

While Israel is declaring its commitment to keeping a lid on the swap talks, Hamas has become the primary source of information about the negotiations, especially its top leaders in Syria.

One of those leaders, Mohammed Nazzal, said from Damascus Sunday that a dispute remained only over a few of the prisoners Hamas wants released, and the Arab press has reported that the German mediator is slated to return to Gaza for another round of talks with Hamas leaders there.

An analysis of the media coverage indicates that the two sides have reached the heart of the matter.

The talks - which are expected to resume Tuesday, after the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha - are now focusing on possible solutions to remaining disagreements, such as punitive action for some of the prisoners and deportation for others. With all the expectations that have been generated, among Israelis and among Palestinians, both sides have a supreme interest in closing a deal soon. The German mediator, who has proven his outstanding ability to figure out each side's lines in the sand, has moved the negotiations to a point at which there is only a single proposal on the table.

Whoever rejects it risks bringing ending negotiations, which could lead to military escalation.

The Hamas organizational structure requires collective decision making. The Arab media have reported that the Gaza leaders have in effect accepted the deal, leaving the ball in the court of Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus.

Hamas is hoping the Shalit deal could help Gaza recover from last winter's Operation Cast Lead and the Israeli economic blockade; it is either hoping to include a clause requiring that the Gaza checkpoints be reopened or is at least assuming that once Shalit is returned, Israel will have to give in to increasing international pressure and ease the blockade.

And though Meshal may have his own considerations beyond those of the Gazan leaders, it's doubtful that he would be able to come up with a new deal at such a late stage of negotiations.

In addition to Hamas' demands, Israel must also take into account the challenges faced by Abbas. In contrast to some media assessments, Israeli intelligence officials say the Shalit deal poses no danger of Hamas taking over the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas, they say, is indeed considering resigning as PA president, and a deal would tarnish his public image and require Israel to take steps to repair it. The intelligence officials say Abbas has generated an atmosphere of imminent departure, which is likely to become more pronounced after the Shalit deal is finalized. But there is still a long way between that and the collapse of the PA.


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