Tuesday night's dramatic cabinet meeting to approve the agreement for the release of Gilad Shalit came after several days of intense negotiations in Cairo between Israeli and Hamas delegations, mediated by German and Egyptian officials.
The inner cabinet and the forum of eight senior cabinet ministers were convened in two secret marathon sessions in the preceding 48 hours for briefings on the details of the exchange agreement.
David Meidan, the special envoy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the release of Shalit, spent the last few days in Cairo, alongside senior Hamas military officials. The final agreement came about after both Israel and Hamas demonstrated heightened flexibility regarding the specific Palestinian prisoners who were to be freed from Israeli prisons in the deal.
The basic outline of the deal remained unchanged - in the first phase, 450 prisoners will be freed at the same time that Shalit will be delivered into Egyptian hands.
In the second stage, an additional 550 Palestinians will be released as Shalit is flown to Israel. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said Netanyahu insisted on not releasing a number of prisoners considered particularly dangerous to Israel.
Last Thursday in Cairo, Meidan and the chief of Hamas' military wing, Ahmed Al-Jabari, initialed the agreement in the presence of the German and Egyptian mediators. The final deal was signed late Monday night. Shin Bet security service head Yoram Cohen was also directly involved in the negotiations.
The approval process in Jerusalem began 8 P.M. Sunday, when Netanyahu convened the "forum of eight" for what turned into an eight-hour meeting, whose very existence was subject to a media gag order and whose contents were not disclosed to reporters. Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon both voiced reservations to the deal. On Monday night the security cabinet was secretly summoned to hear about the deal.
On Tuesday morning, after Meidan informed him that the deal had been signed, Netanyahu summoned Gilad Shalit's father, Noam Shalit, to an urgent meeting to give him the news. The prime minister then called Zvi Shalit, Gilad Shalit's grandfather.
"I promised you I would bring him home, and I was true to my word," Netanyahu told Ziv. Netanyahu's wife, Sara Netanyahu, called Gilad's mother, Aviva Shalit, with the news.
Netanyahu insisted that the agreement be approved by the full cabinet, prompting the convention late Tuesday afternoon of the entire cabinet. Some ministers were not informed of the reason for the session in advance.
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak continued to lobby recalcitrant ministers, especially Lieberman and Likud ministers such as Yuli Edelstein and Gilad Erdan, to support the deal up until the session began. Netanyahu said there was only "a short window of opportunity" for the deal. "There's a danger that governments in the Middle East will collapse and radical elements will sieze power and won't allow the deal to happen. That might bring an end to all efforts to free Gilad," he urged the ministers.
Special efforts were made in the past two days to get Shas ministers on board. Barak met Rabbi Ovadia Yosef twice, while Ya'alon met him once. Yosef decided to support the deal on Tuesday, and ordered the Shas ministers to approve it.
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