Time has muddled the Cairo-brokered Shalit deal
Israel's behavior in the past few days in the discussions for the Shalit deal and the cease-fire agreement has put the Egyptians mediators off balance.
About 10 days ago, when senior defense official Amos Gilad traveled to Cairo, the Egyptians understood that the matter was nearly closed. The tahadiyeh [lull] is within reach, and in parallel, or approximately so, the abducted soldier would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners. The Egyptians had hoped to issue an official statement on a deal close to Election Day in Israel, but when that was not possible they assumed it would take a day or two more.
In the meantime, a week has gone by and Israel is reopening issues for discussion they in Cairo had thought were closed.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak put things bluntly.
"Israel has withdrawn from its position," he said. "There was an agreement for a lull, and now the Israelis are going back a bit, but we are pressing them."
Shalit, Mubarak says, "is a different matter," and progress on it will commence only after an agreement is reached on the cease-fire.
The change during the weekend occurred on the Israeli side. It is not only the absolute linkage that Israel is making between opening the crossings into the Gaza Strip, central to the cease-fire agreement, and the release of Shalit, which was announced by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Saturday. Israel is reconsidering entirely the whole question of a cease-fire.
It seems that if it were possible, Israel would opt for a "Shalit Minus" framework for a deal: the soldier in exchange for prisoners, without involving a cease-fire at all.
From the point of view of Hamas, the order of priorities is reversed. The cease-fire, and especially the reopening of the crossings into the Strip, is an urgent demand. The prisoners can wait. They have been sitting in prisons for more than a decade - another month will not make a difference.
Shift in the halls of power
The rather unclear result of the Israeli elections has something to do with what is going on in the Israeli leadership. Defense Minister Ehud Barak appears to have lost some of his influence. Not only has he avoided public appearances (his last was when the election results were announced last week), but there is an atmosphere at the Defense Ministry that his bags are nearly packed.
Under such circumstances Barak, who had been the one pushing for a deal linking the cease-fire with Shalit, is still facing formidable skepticism from the corner of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Not only does she not share his enthusiasm for concessions in exchange for Shalit, but she also opposes any binding cease-fire agreement. Now Olmert is backtracking and finding merit in Livni's reservations.
Both are questioning whether it is possible to use a strategy of deterence along the border with the Gaza Strip, without having to go into a cease-fire deal. Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is unofficially participating in the consultations and is apparently a lot more eager to resolve the Shalit issue than agree to a lull. In any case, he does not believe that it would be possible to achieve long-term stability vis-a-vis Hamas.
Even though the cabinet may meet tomorrow to discuss a possible deal, it seems that the matter is suddenly less urgent. This is linked to politics too: it will take a long time before a coalition government is formed. Olmert will probably still have time to enjoy five or six cabinet sessions. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the Egyptians are getting impatient. As late as Saturday they were convinced they would be able to meet each side's needs. But Israel's stance is making things complicated for them.