Text size

Reports to date had Egypt mediating indirect exchanges between Israel and Hamas on both a cease-fire deal and the bargaining for Gilad Shalit's freedom. However, it now appears that the discussions are being handled on entirely separate channels.

The talks on the prisoner exchange are being handled in Israel by Ofer Dekel, the special envoy of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is not at all involved in the cease-fire talks. The Defense Ministry is not involved directly in the talks on Shalit, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak is updated on the negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Shalit family on Tuesday reiterated its demand that their son's release be included as the primary condition of a cease-fire deal with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"Gilad can still be saved - don't turn him into another Ron Arad," the family urged Israeli leaders in a statement.

In their statement, they wrote that the proposal currently being formulated could be the last chance to bring Gilad home and warned: "Indecision on his release within the framework of an agreement will seal his fate for months and maybe even years."

Ahead of Wednesday's cabinet meeting, scheduled to discuss the framework of the cease-fire and prisoner exchange agreements, Egypt is pressuring Israel not to undermine the basis of the understandings for a lull. The Egyptian government has sent messages to Israel that they "do not understand the meaning of Israel's withdrawal from its [original] position," and expect Israel will not foil Cairo's efforts to reach a tahdiyeh (lull) in the Gaza Strip.

For its part, sources in the Prime Minister's Bureau noted Tuesday that Israel's position on the deals was presented to Egypt on Sunday, and that it insists that Shalit should be freed before border crossings into the Gaza Strip are reopened.

The main problem at this time in the Shalit deal is the order in which the cease-fire and the crossings reopening will take place, in relation to the prisoner exchange. The turning point in the talks occurred last week when Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader from the Strip, returned to Gaza following meetings in Damascus with the group's politburo chief, Khaled Meshal and his deputy Musa Abu Marzuk.

Meshal accused Israel Tuesday of foiling Egyptian efforts to reach a cease-fire agreement, and claimed that Jerusalem added terms to the deal at the last minute. The Hamas strongman in Damascus also said that the organization will not agree to linkage between Shalit and the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli representative in the talks with Egypt, Amos Gilad, suggested during a meeting in Cairo 10 days ago that the deal be carried out in a certain order. According to the Israeli offer, the Erez, Karni and Sufa crossings would be opened before Shalit would be released, and a short while later the Rafah crossing into Sinai would be opened. Finally, Kerem Shalom, linking the Gaza Strip and Israel would be opened.

In spite the minor differences in the Egyptian formula, it looked like Israel and Egypt could reach a deal. However, after the relatively tough stance adopted by Meshal on the chronological order of the deal's application, Olmert altered his position. Olmert insists that the crossings will be opened only in parallel with the release of Shalit in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners. The prime minister is basing his stance mostly on the advice of Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, who has warned that if Israel opens some of the crossings before it is certain that Shalit will be freed, a significant bargaining chip will be surrendered that cannot be reclaimed if Hamas fails to meet its obligations - even if Israel retaliates by closing the crossings once again.