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Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas's political bureau, is slated to meet with senior Egyptian officials in Cairo tomorrow to discuss a deal for the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces corporal Gilad Shalit.

Sources involved in the talks described the meeting as "critical," adding that if Meshal really does come from Damascus to attend the session, he will probably accept the proposed deal.

However, it is still unclear whether Meshal will actually come, and both Israeli and Hamas sources said that they were pessimistic about the chances of a deal actually materializing at the end of the Cairo meeting.

More than a week ago, Egyptian Information Minister Omar Suleiman presented Meshal and his aides in Damascus with a new initiative that includes Shalit's release, the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel and a deal on the establishment of a national unity government for the Palestinian Authority.

According to Fatah officials, the Egyptian proposal calls for the overall release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, in several stages. Initially, a small group of prisoners would be released along with Shalit, and two months later, a larger group would be freed. The latter would include Palestinian prisoners who are considered to be political leaders.

Commenting on this proposal, Israeli sources said that "Israel can live with such a deal."

Senior Palestinian sources said yesterday that following the Cairo meetings, further consultations are expected to take place in Damascus among representatives of Fatah, Hamas, Syria, Qatar and Spain in order to solve the unity government conundrum. The sources explained that Spain is willing to send representatives to these talks in an effort to solve the crisis in the Gaza Strip.

However, a senior Hamas official told Haaretz yesterday that he is not optimistic that the talks in Egypt will result in either Shalit's release or the establishment of a national unity government.

An Israeli government source similarly said that "there is no reason to get excited about Meshal's visit to Cairo." Government sources explained that they are not aware of any significant progress having been made in talks about a prisoner exchange.

Noam Shalit, the abducted soldier's father, told Haaretz yesterday that he was skeptical about the results of the meeting between Meshal and Suleiman. He added that not a single Israeli official has reported to him on the government's expectations of this meeting.

"I hope that this meeting will take place and be fruitful. However, as long there is no such meeting, we have nothing to say on this matter," Shalit said.

Meanwhile, the European Union's foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last night. The two discussed the troubled Fatah-Hamas relationship and the chances of forming a national unity government.

Solana also met with the wife of Kadura Fares, one of the heads of Fatah's Tanzim militias, and with the wife of Marwan Barghouti, Fadwa.

Earlier, Solana met with Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense MInister Amir Peretz.

In the Gaza Strip yesterday, rumors were flying about a Fatah plan to hold mass demonstrations on Saturday. Many fears that such shows of defiance against the Hamas government could result in fighting between Hamas and Fatah.

However, Fatah sources denied that any such plan existed.