Olmert's Last (Failed) Stand

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert moved from defense to offense in the case of Gilad Shalit. Instead of the excuses that lacked clarity that sources close to him uttered, there was finally a clear and straight statement.

"The government which I head," Olmert said last night at a press conference, "will not release more prisoners than those it already agreed to hand over to Hamas. There are red lines that we shall not cross."

It is a good thing that things are being said clearly, but still, we have a question: If in two weeks Israel has moved its red lines from releasing 220 "heavy" prisoners to 320 (out of a list of 450 that Hamas wants) who can really vouch that this is truly the final line? And why did the prime minister bind his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, with such an absolute statement, which was accompanied, for the first time, with the names of the mass murderers that Israel refuses to release? (Also released were the names of those it agrees to let go, so long as they are expelled from the West Bank.)

The press conference and the special cabinet meeting, which preceded it, were part of a final defense for Olmert. At the cabinet, the deal was not brought up for a vote, and the prime minister and his envoys, Ofer Dekel and Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin did not brief the cabinet. The ministers themselves were asked not to comment on the matter, also not in private. Before the cameras, Olmert refused to answer questions, and journalists, many of whom were carried away in recent days in an excessive and emotional campaign for the release of Shalit "at all cost," were this time restrained in their behavior.

Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, made do with a short and general comment, evidence of the shock and the disappointment of the crazy last few days clearly etched on his face.

It appeared that this time the pendulum swung Olmert's way, especially with Diskin and the deputy head of Mossad presenting the cabinet with a clear and determined stance against further concessions to Hamas.

"We made every effort," Olmert reiterated in his speech. Possibly, but the prime minister did not comment on criticism about what has been described as basic errors in negotiations, agreeing to allow Hamas to dictate a fixed list of 450 murderers without making clear first who was not going to be released.

Of course the negotiations could restart with the new government, but as far as Olmert's period is concerned, the outgoing prime minister and his cabinet failed bitterly in the Shalit case. It happened not only because the extraordinary cruelty of the enemy, which was something we had been aware of, but also because of Israeli behavior.

Nameless sources in the defense establishment claimed last night that Olmert's speech was an effort to rewrite history. Why does Defense Minister Ehud Barak not back up these sources? Because unlike Olmert, Barak also believes it is possible to go further in order to close the deal with Hamas, has not exhibited extraordinary courage in this matter.

On the Israeli side, the partial release in Israel of lists of those it was willing to release and those it is not are causing real problems for Hamas. The families of the prisoners will now pressure the group. Its leadership may hesitate to return to the negotiating table, fearing that what it proposes will be leaked by Israel. For them, secrecy is now essential for a deal to go through.

Both the Hamas leadership and the Egyptian mediators opted to highlight the positive aspects of the negotiations, saying that progress has been achieved in the talks and that the differences between the two sides are minor.

Hamas also tried to blame Israel for the failure, but the group is largely responsible for the failure because its demands were nearly impossible to meet.

These were made as a result of Hamas' mistaken assessment that Olmert would have to give in to public and media pressure.

If there is no surprising development, the bottom line is that Shalit will not be coming home any time soon. Netanyahu's narrow right-wing coalition will find it even more difficult to meet Hamas' demands.