ANALYSIS / Are Olmert's efforts to reach Shalit deal just an alibi?
Olmert is generating enormous buzz, but has still not agreed to pay the high price Hamas is demanding.
The Israeli envoys' hasty departure for Cairo, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's stern face at the start of Sunday's cabinet meeting and the Shalit family's permanent vigil in front of Olmert's residence all seem to be setting the stage for the dramatic conclusion of a prisoner exchange in the coming days. Even the nighttime shooting attack in the Jordan Valley, which claimed the lives of two police officers, may be linked to the efforts in Cairo - a message from terrorist groups in the West Bank that their struggle will go on even if Israel releases close to 1,400 Palestinian prisoners.
Yet the intensive media coverage of the Gilad Shalit talks does not necessarily portend a successful outcome. As of this weekend, the differences between the parties were still substantial. In Cairo, Israeli negotiator Ofer Dekel and Shin Bet Security Service Chief Yuval Diskin presented a more generous offer than Israel had made previously. However, there are still prisoners on Hamas' list that Israel refuses to release, and there are dozens of others (different sources give numbers ranging from 100 to 300) that Israel will agree to release only to the Gaza Strip, Lebanon or Syria.
Diskin was supposed to return from Cairo Sunday night and report to Olmert on the status of the talks. The cabinet will then hold a special meeting this morning. But security sources are doubtful that this meeting will result in approval of a final deal. They say it is more likely that ministers will merely be briefed on what is happening in the negotiations.
These assessments, however, are based on limited information. The decisions, if any, are being made along the Olmert-Dekel-Diskin axis. Everyone else knows only a small portion of the details.
Diskin, who has consistently opposed making major concessions for Shalit's release, has an important role to play in the current talks. He is the senior professional authority, the person who will decide which of the "heavyweight" prisoners pose too great a risk to be freed without being deported. Olmert will decide whether to bring a deal to the cabinet for approval, but the Shin Bet will make the professional recommendations.
The Israel Defense Forces are currently keeping a low profile. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who supports making massive concessions to free Shalit, is in the United States, and as of Sunday night, there were no reports of him cutting his visit short. This may be an indication that matters are not moving very fast. It is hard to imagine Ashkenazi skipping a crucial cabinet meeting on this issue.
Neither Hamas nor Egypt seemed impressed with Israel's latest offer. The Egyptians understand that Olmert probably only has a few more days in office; they have followed every bit of news on the coalition negotiations and its potential implications on the Shalit deal, and an Egyptian source said there will be additional meetings in the coming days. But it is not at all certain that Hamas leaders are quaking in their boots over Benjamin Netanyahu's impending premiership. They remember that during his previous term as prime minister, Netanyahu was pressured into releasing Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin from prison and signing the Hebron and Wye accords.
After all is said and done, the question that remains is what Olmert's real goal is. Is he really trying to reach an agreement, as he has repeatedly promised over the last two months? Or is he just trying to create an alibi - to persuade the Shalit family, and the Israeli public, that he has done everything he could? He is generating an enormous media buzz, but has still not agreed to pay the high price Hamas is demanding.
Anyone shocked by the suggestion that he might merely be covering his rear should review Olmert's conduct in other sensitive matters in recent years, from the Second Lebanon War to the prisoner exchange with Hezbollah.