Israel is expecting that progress will be achieved on the negotiations for the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit as a result of the meeting between Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and exiled Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal, in Damascus yesterday. The two Hamas leaders were expected to have reached an agreement on the deal that is being negotiated for the release of Shalit in exchange for the freeing of many Palestinian prisoners.

Israel informed Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, of its willingness to release prisoners, during meetings the Egyptian mediator held in Israel last week, a senior source in Jerusalem said yesterday.

"We agreed to release several hundred women and children, mostly the young among them," the Israeli source said. "We have also agreed to release several hundred [adult male] Palestinian prisoners, among them prisoners sentenced to many years in prison," he added.

The senior Israeli source said that the total number of prisoners that Israel would be willing to release "revolves around one thousand. We have made the figure clear to Egypt and they know our stance. The prisoners will be released in a number of stages, women and children during the first stage.

Three days ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak confirmed that Israel will have to release women and children as part of a deal for the release of Shalit, even before he is handed back to Israel.

According to Egypt's plan, the first stage of the exchange will include the transfer of Shalit to Egypt, in return for the women and children. At the second stage, Shalit will be returned to Israel, in return for another group of prisoners. At the third stage, another group of Palestinian prisoners will be released.

However, any such deal is still being delayed by Hamas, the Israeli source says.

"The reason for the delay is not clear to us, but it is possible that the difficulties in establishing a government of national unity is undermining the completion of the deal," he said.

"It is hard to envision a scenario in which Israel agrees to release Marwan Barghouti [a leading Fatah figure sentenced for his role in the deaths of Israelis] but in any case, it should be understood that names have not been discussed at this point. We have only talked about numbers," the Israeli source added.

Other sources added that so far Hamas has not presented the mediators with a list of names of prisoners they would like released.

However, the same source said that the name of Barghouti will be on such a list.

Mediators also confirm that in their indirect negotiations, Israel and Hamas have not discussed names of prisoners that would be freed, only numbers. However, they said that there is a huge gap between the claims each side is making on the number of prisoners that are to be released in exchange for Shalit.

"Israel has agreed to release about 300 prisoners," the mediators say. "Hamas is demanding about 1400, including women and children. Suleiman has asked Israel to raise the figure, but to date we have not received a clear answer on this request."

The mediators also said that "there is no problem over the way the stages are divided or the timing of the prisoner release, all of which has already been agreed upon."

The same sources also said that in their view, Hamas would be willing to accept a figure lower than 1,400 prisoners.

According to other sources, the difference between the Hamas demands and Israel's position does not exceed several hundred prisoners.

The Palestinian prime minister met yesterday with Syrian President Bashar Assad, and reports from Damascus said that the meeting focused on the efforts of Palestinians to establish a government of national unity.

During his visit to Damascus, the first since he became prime minister earlier this year, Haniyeh said that the dialogue for a unity government must go on.

"If there are any sides among the Palestinians who wish to put an end to the talks, they will be the ones responsible for the failure of the talks," he warned.

Meanwhile, sources who follow the talks between Haniyeh and Meshal said that Hamas is willing to lower the number of prisoners whose release the group is demanding in return for Shalit.

However, Hamas is demanding that the deal also include prisoners who have been sentenced to long terms in prison and who are senior members of the organization.

A senior source in Jerusalem told Haaretz yesterday that there are no guarantees that Meshal will authorize the deal, since he is under pressure from Iran and Syria, neither of which is interested in any development that will allow the creation of a unity government in the Palestinian Authority along guidelines put forth by Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.