Noam Shalit, the father of captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, met on Thursday with the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair. Following the meeting, Shalit refused to comment on the recent reports of significant progress on a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas involving his son. He did note, however, that Israel has been given a window of opportunity that may not present itself in the future.
Shalit said Blair did not give any promises on the matter though he did say that he would continue to make determined efforts to bring about Gilad's release. Shalit noted that he asked Blair to exert his influence in helping to clinch a deal "in addition to the pressure that the Quartet puts on Israel to take steps towards the Palestinians in Gaza."
As such, the Knesset elections results are likely to advance a prisoner exchange deal. The outgoing premier, Ehud Olmert, and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak can devote their time and energy to bringing Shalit home.
Barak is convinced that the Shalit affair must be concluded as quickly as possible, even if this entails approving the release of some of the most "hardened" terrorists from prison as demanded by Hamas. In recent weeks, Olmert's stance on the matter has shifted. His agreement in principle to the position offered by Barak and IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi paves the way for progress in the negotiations.
The results of the Knesset elections allow two of the three senior Israeli leaders to focus on their final task before their tenure ends: returning Gilad Shalit home.
What was obvious for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who did not run in this election, may also be true for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Most analysts argue that the election results will remove Barak from the Defense Ministry and put him on the Knesset's opposition benches.
In his television address Tuesday night after the results were announced, Barak (and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni) made sure to mention Israel's obligation to bring Shalit home. This is a position he has reiterated publicly in recent months.
Behind closed doors it is being voiced with even greater urgency.
Barak believes that the Shalit case must be quickly brought to a close, even if this means that some of the "heavy duty" prisoners Hamas has asked for are released.
Olmert's support, in principle, for the views of Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi allows for progress in talks to finalize a deal.
On the Palestinian side, a Hamas delegation was scheduled to arrive last night in Cairo, after a series of meetings in Damascus with Hamas representatives based there and officials from Qatar.
The delegation is expected to answer the Egyptian interlocutors on whether Hamas accepts the formula for a cease-fire agreement, which includes Israel's position on the release of Shalit.
In recent days, senior Hamas officials avoided commenting on a possible prisoner exchange, and it is still unclear whether the group will agree to a deal.
Meanwhile, Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan, in an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, reiterated his assessment that Shalit will be released by the time the Olmert government comes to an end.
For its part, the Arab press describes the differences between Hamas and Israel on the formula offered by Egypt as "minor" and suggests that a deal will go into effect in the very near future.
The fact Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu has a good chance of forming the next Israeli government has bolstered the assessments that the indirect exchanges between Israel and Hamas will bear fruit during the Olmert government's remaining time.
On the one hand, a Netanyahu appointment serves as a tool against Hamas because Egypt can present the deal as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that may pass by once a new, right-wing coalition is sworn in to government.
On the other hand, as mentioned, Netanyahu would like to see Olmert clear the Shalit issue from the prime minister's desk before he takes office.
He would be able to agree tacitly with Olmert not to block an agreement by the outgoing government to pay whatever high price Hamas has asked for Shalit.
Moreover, this will free Netanyahu from any possible charges in the future that some of the imprisoned Palestinians convicted of mass murder were released on his watch, to resume terrorism against Israel.
The bottom line is that the coming weeks offer a window of opportunity for closing a deal - which requires Israel to pay a high price.
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