Sarkozy Steps Up Pressure Over Shalit After Video Swap

Noam Shalit to meet the French president at the Elysee Palace Thursday evening.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a message recently to Syrian President Bashar Assad asking him to pressure the Hamas leadership in Damascus to close a deal for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Syrians passed the message to the head of the Hamas political wing in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, according to diplomatic sources.

Sarkozy sent his senior advisers, Claude Gueant and Jean-David Levitte to Damascus Monday to continue the talks. The two met with Assad and delivered a message about Shalit, who is also a French citizen.

Gilad's father Noam Shalit met in Paris yesterday with Sarkozy's aides, Levitte, and with Sarkozy's adviser on Mideast and North African affairs, Nicolas Ganet.

He reportedly received an update on the content of the meetings in Syria and the messages transmitted from the Syrians to Hamas.

Noam Shalit is to meet this evening with Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace. The meeting had not been planned, but after Sarkozy learned that Shalit was in Paris he expressed the desire to meet briefly with him.

The group working for the release of Gilad Shalit said the meeting with Sarkozy would not produce anything dramatic. They said the other Paris meetings were planned even before the video footage arrived, however the sign of life from Gilad, which proves that there is movement in the talks, requires action on both the local and the international level.

The activists are planning to join the tent vigil being held by young people near the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem tomorrow.

Noam Shalit is expected to give interviews today to major French media outlets.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was in Paris about a week ago to meet with Sarkozy's aides regarding the establishment of the government in Lebanon and on Syrian-French relations. Sarkozy dropped in on the meeting for a few minutes and asked Muallem to deliver the content of the discussions as a message from him to Assad.

France has been conducting an on-going dialogue with Damascus about Shalit, but this time, according to French diplomats, the message was firmer, given progress by the German mediator in the talks and the partial deal carried out last Friday releasing 20 Palestinian women prisoners in exchange for a video showing Shalit.

The French emissaries told Assad to pressure Hamas into allowing the German mediator to move forward as quickly as possible.

The Syrians subsequently told the French that they had delivered a message in that spirit to the Hamas leadership.

For more than a year now, Sarkozy has been implementing a policy of closer ties with Syria, after a period of tense relations between the two countries, mainly over disagreements regarding Lebanon.

Following the release of the video footage of Gilad Shalit Friday, Sarkozy telephoned the Shalit family and spoke with Noam and Aviva Shalit and said he would continue his efforts toward Gilad's release.

In addition to the Syrian channel, Sarkozy has also been working through his ties with the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa, who is also close to Hamas, to obtain signs of life from Gilad and to pressure Hamas to agree to a deal for his release.

About a year ago, Sarkozy delivered a letter to Gilad from his family through the Qataris to Hamas, and Gilad reportedly received it.