Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on Tuesday accused Israel of thwarting Egyptian efforts to reach a truce in the Gaza Strip by adding conditions to the deal at the last minute.
Meshal made his comments in reference to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's insistence that no truce could be reached with Hamas until an agreement has been set for the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.
The Hamas leader said his group would not reverse its stance that the Gaza truce remain separate from any deal to release Shalit, who has been in Palestinian captivity since he was captured by Hamas-allied in a 2006 cross-border raid.
The pan-Arab daily Al Hayat on Tuesday, however, quoted a Hamas official as saying the group was not opposed to freeing abducted Shalit before a truce took effect.
The official said that for this to happen, Israel must release all of the Palestinian prisoners Hamas has demanded in return for Shalit, the London-based paper reported.
He was further quoted as saying that jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was among the prisoners Hamas had demanded, and that Israel did not oppose his release.
But the official said Israel was opposed to freeing Ahmed Sa'adat, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader jailed for ordering the 2001 assassination of former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
The report came as Olmert said on Tuesday that he hoped a deal for Shalit's release would soon be reached, even if not during his tenure as premier.
"I hope that the issue will be concluded within a short amount of time," Olmert said while on a tour of the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem.
The prime minister on Wednesday intends to bring before the cabinet for its approval a demand that conditions a cease-fire deal in Gaza on Shalit's release.
"We will reach decisions on this tomorrow, and I hope that these decisions will be a base that will enable a solution to the problem within a short amount of time - even if not within the present government's term," he added.
The premier also said that Israel is determined in its position on the Shalit issue and has placed it at the top of its priorities, alongside halting rocket fire from Gaza and smuggling to the coastal strip. He praised efforts by Egypt to combat the smuggling and said this matter too would be discussed on Wednesday.
Olmert updated Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his position and stressed that Israel would not agree to a different arrangement for a cease-fire deal.
Olmert stressed on Monday that he had informed Mubarak of his view after Defense Minister Ehud Barak assumed the opposite position with Egyptian mediators.
Olmert believes that if the cabinet decides to accept his precondition that any cease-fire in the Gaza Strip be contingent upon Shalit's release, then Barak will be unable to strike a different deal with the Egyptians.
"We will bring our own proposal for a framework [deal]," sources close to Olmert said on Monday. "If the defense minister or anyone else has a different proposal, let them bring it and we will see if it will be approved."
The prime minister and his aides were upset by the behavior of Barak, who had granted interviews to the media days prior to the election, declaring that a resolution of the Shalit case was close at hand. Barak had warned that for this to happen, difficult decisions must be made.
Olmert and his aides attributed to the defense minister a series of media reports on a framework agreement for Shalit's release, as well as reports that the cease-fire agreement would not include the soldier's release.
During a visit in southern Israel on Monday, Olmert made a statement which targetted Barak. "I have insisted from day one that there will be no cease-fire before Shalit is release," Olmert said. "I did not speak of this in public, and I asked in every possible way: Do not talk about Gilad Shalit in public. Contrary to other people, I thought that it should not be talked about."
"Every day I witnessed dramatic appearances of individuals on television talking about the need for decisions. I thought that it was appropriate for whoever carrying the supreme responsibility in the State of Israel to tell the public the truth," he added.
Olmert also said that he had called the Egyptian president to clarify Israel's stance on Shalit's release. The prime minister hinted that Barak had given Egypt mixed messages.
"I spoke with the highest officials in Egypt so that there will be no misunderstanding," Olmert said. "I said that we will not reopen the border crossings [in the Gaza Strip] and assist Hamas so long as Gilad Shalit is in their brutal prison. When Gilad is home, we will be ready to discuss other matters."
Egyptian President Mubarak said on Monday that his country would continue the mediation efforts between the two sides despite setbacks.
"The release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is a separate issue and cannot be linked to the truce," Mubarak said while meeting in Bahrain with the country's leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
Meanwhile, the deputy head of the Hamas politburo in Damascus, Musa Abu Marzuk, said on Monday that the final outcome of the cease-fire talks would become clear in two or three more days.
He said that if Israel wanted Shalit returned, it had to release Palestinian prisoners to their homes, hinting that Israel had insisted on releasing them outside the Palestinian Authority.
Arab sources reported on Monday that Hamas had already agreed to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal and to Cairo's conditions - namely that the border crossings would not be fully opened before Shalit's release.
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