Barrage of Denials May Hide Real Shalit Talks Progress

Egyptian media reports of a breakthrough in negotiations to bring Gilad Shalit home were based on claims by Egypt ex-ambassador to Israel; Hamas, Egypt and Israel officials denied his assertions.

The Israeli media got excited for several hours yesterday after a report in Egyptian newspaper Al Mesryoon announced a "breakthrough" in talks over exchanging captive soldier Gilad Shalit for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

The story was based on assertions by the former ambassador to Israel, Muhammad Bassiouni. Bassiouni no longer holds any office in Egypt, and later said there would be no deal within hours.

Noam shalit - june 3 - Daniel Bar on
Daniel Bar-On

The report was denied by everyone involved in the prisoner-exchange talks, including Hamas, whose officials told Haaretz the report was unfounded. Egyptian officials, meanwhile, said the report was fabricated, and the Prime Minister's Office said that although the negotiations were intensive and ongoing, no breakthrough had been achieved.

But despite the barrage of denials, it seems some progress has been made, even if its exact nature is unclear. The prime minister's special envoy, David Meidan, has held several rounds of talks with Egyptian officials, especially members of the intelligence community.

The head of political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry, Amos Gilad, visited Egypt recently - something that appears to have contributed to the Al Mesryoon report. And according to the Hamas website, the chiefs of the Hamas military wing, lead by Ahmed Al-Jabari, are now in Cairo, holding talks on the prisoner exchange.

Bassiouni told reporters that while he did speak to the newspaper, a deal would not be sealed within hours. "There are many details that remain open," he said.

The Shalit family declined to comment on the report after it was so roundly denied. One member of the family said there have been many reports on progress in the talks that later proved to be unfounded. He said the family did not receive any official update yesterday.

Meanwhile, a senior Egyptian journalist told Haaretz that Cairo is trying to make progress on the deal and that an outline already exists for a prisoner exchange. He said the current plan included around 1,000 prisoners, including senior ones such as imprisoned leaders of Palestinian factions.

According to the journalist, Egypt is trying to make the swap part of a package deal that would include understandings with Israel on the Rafah crossing and Al-Qaida activity in the Sinai. To counter Al-Qaida, military forces would be required in the peninsula.

Also, an Arab Israeli source in contact with Palestinian prisoners told Haaretz there has been fresh progress in the talks, with Israel agreeing to release Arab Israeli prisoners, especially ones who have already served considerable prison terms. He said one of the stumbling blocks remains the refusal of some prisoners to be deported after their release.