Egypt: Shalit will disappear unless Israel compromises with Hamas
New Israeli negotiator reportedly told Egyptian intelligence officials that if Hamas did not agree to latest deal for prisoner swap, there would be no deal at all.
The fifth anniversary this Saturday of the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has seen a burst of activity on all sides to negotiate his release.
Egyptian security officials involved in the talks told Haaretz over the weekend that the approach by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new envoy to the talks, David Meidan, could scuttle the negotiations and lead to Shalit's "disappearance."
The Egyptians said Meidan told Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo last week that if Hamas did not agree to the latest deal proposed by Israel, there would be no deal at all.
The Egyptians said the Hamas negotiators, headed by the group's military chief, Ahmed Jabari, had responded to the Israeli approach with a clear threat that the talks would end and a deal for Shalit would be off the table.
Hamas said Israel's unwillingness to go further than its last offer would lead to Shalit's disappearance, the Egyptians added.
The Egyptians said that after Meidan arrived in Cairo, it was obvious that Israel had no intention of compromising. In contrast, the officials said, Hamas and Jabari were willing to change their positions.
The officials said they had told Meidan he does not know Hamas and its leadership well enough to understand that an uncompromising position that contains an implicit threat would achieve the opposite result.
The Egyptians explained that it was now necessary to take one more step forward. "The parties can conclude the talks within hours, but at the same time, the talks can get stuck for many months," one said.
Noam Shalit, the captured soldier's father, said he knows of no new details or new proposal by Israel, including by Meidan. Shalit said he did not even know that Meidan had been speaking to Hamas.
"The last proposal I know about is the German one," he said, referring to reports in recent years of a deal brokered by former German mediator Gerhard Conrad in exchange for the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Shalit met last week with French officials and President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss his son's release in light of developments in Syria and the Palestinian Authority, and French influence in both these arenas.
Shalit also filed a suit in France to open a criminal investigation against the people responsible for his son's abduction. The family is waiting for the appointment of an investigative judge.
Meanwhile, the family and the Israeli organization working for Shalit's release are planning a number of events to mark the fifth anniversary of his abduction. Activities are planned for next week, especially on Saturday, to be held in and around the protest tent near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem.
The officials said there were two key obstacles to clinching a deal. The first is the Israeli demand to expel more than half the 450 senior prisoners on the Hamas list handed to Israel years ago. According to the Egyptians, this figure is unreasonable. They say Hamas would be willing to see a few dozen freed prisoners expelled from the West Bank to Gaza and abroad, but certainly not the 230 prisoners Israel wants to exile.
The second obstacle involves disagreement over the release of the prisoners known as "VIPs" - prisoners who are leaders of Hamas and other organizations such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The officials warned that time was working against Shalit and said pressure must be applied to see a deal through. But Israeli officials have rejected such criticism and continue to view Egyptian mediation as essential.
Meanwhile, Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for Shalit's speedy release at a joint press conference Friday in Berlin.
Merkel and especially Sarkozy - Shalit also holds French citizenship - have issued similar calls in the past, but this joint call seems to have greater significance. This is particularly so because it came during the two leaders' urgent meeting to discuss Greece's economic crisis.
A senior government official in Jerusalem said Sarkozy and Merkel had consulted with Netanyahu before releasing their statement to make sure they would not jeopardize the talks by placing the main responsibility for the delay in releasing Shalit on Hamas. On Thursday, Netanyahu encouraged them to go ahead with the statement, the official said.
Sarkozy has been very active in recent years vis-a-vis Egypt, Syria and Qatar about Shalit's relase. He reportedly got the idea for the joint statement with Merkel after meeting with Noam Shalit last week.
Sources close to the talks told Haaretz that Merkel and Sarkozy's call was very significant because it reflected a broad international effort to move the deal forward.
Sources in Merkel's office told Reuters Friday that the parties had received the draft of an agreement to release 1,000 prisoners for Shalit and that Hamas' military wing was delaying the swap. But it is unclear how much is new in that report, since according to earlier reports, the German proposal called for the release of that number - 450 senior prisoners and 550 other Palestinian prisoners.
The current deal, which Hamas rejected the last time the parties were near a decision, in July 2009, was brokered by Conrad.
But Egypt has recently ratcheted up its involvement in the talks after a long period in which is had been playing a secondary role only, according to foreign sources.
Egypt's renewed involvement in the Shalit swap is closely linked to former President Hosni Mubarak's ouster and closer ties between the new regime and Hamas. These were evident in the Cairo-brokered reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, and in the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
Egypt, which is seeking to reposition itself vis-a-vis the Arab world following Mubarak's downfall, would also reap prestige internationally if it played a key role in Shalit's release.
Jabari has been called to Cairo for consultations three times in an effort to soften his position. Israeli commentators have accused Jabari of intentionally sabotaging the talks. The Israelis say they have the impression that Jabari and his fellow military leader, Mohammed Deif, will not agree to a swap that is not perceived as deeply humiliating to Israel and total acquiescence to Hamas' demands.
Barak Ravid and Jack Khoury contributed to this article.