The public thirsts for positive news on Gilad Shalit. The Israeli soldier has passed the fourth anniversary of being held captive in Gaza, and his parents are still staying in the protest tent opposite the Prime Minister's Residence, so once again exaggerated attention is being paid to yet another news item in the Arab media. An Egyptian newspaper that doesn't enjoy a reputation for reliability reported former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will soon visit Gaza to mediate between Israel and Hamas for Shalit's release.
The news item shot to the headlines on Israeli news websites and was reported on radio and TV and then followed by official denials. The Prime Minister's Office, the Defense Ministry and Israelis in contact with former president Carter said it succinctly. The report was unfounded.
Two years ago, in a visit to the region, Carter managed to deliver a letter from the captive soldier to his parents, and later to deliver to Hamas a reply. But then, as now, the optimism that blossomed around what Carter might do proved exaggerated. Hamas has retained its tough negotiating stance.
With the media noise over the Shalit march beginning to fade, it seems German mediator Gerhard Conrad may renew the talks on a prisoner exchange within a month. Hamas appears to be still in a daze over its success in loosening Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, and persuading the movement to moderate its position will prove difficult. Chances might improve somewhat toward the end of August, with the the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and Eid el Fiter, when Hamas will need achievements to present.
If one looks back on the last time the parties came close to an agreement, in December, it seems the obstruction on the Palestinian side came from the organization's military wing. Customarily it has been seen as hawkish as it doesn't have to face the anger and frustration of prisoner families and Gaza residents hurt by the siege. The political bureau in Damascus seemed closer to cutting a deal. But the chief of the military wing, Ahmed Jabari, backtracked from an earlier agreement, apparently under pressure from families of senior prisoners whom Hamas was prepared to give up in the face of an Israeli veto.
In negotiations with Hamas it is the most radical voice in the movement that will always dictate its positions. Without the agreement of Jabari, there's no possibility of a deal. He has strongest hand. After all, it's his men who are holding Shalit.
One can look back now and see Hamas regards the tape exchange, in which 20 female prisoners were released for a videotape showing Gilad Shalit, as a mistake. After the swap was made, the organization came to believe that Israel profited most. The tape showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the soldier was reasonably healthly and did away with fears for Shalit's life. Hamas officials believe Netanyahu's bargaining power actually grew after the exchange, while for Hamas, any benefit was relatively marginal.
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