Egypt Pushing Hamas to Soften Stance on Shalit Deal

Report: Hamas agrees in principle to new proposal; Hamas expected to compromise in order to gain popularity ahead of Palestinian elections.

Hamas has agreed in principle to a new proposal aimed at securing the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Al Jazeera television reported on its website Sunday. The report said the plan was forumated by Egypt.

Egyptian sources told Haaretz Sunday that although Egypt has renewed efforts to promote a deal for Shalit's release, no actual negotiations have begun. Egypt is trying to exert pressure on Hamas to soften its stance so that a deal can be concluded, which would include the release of Palestinian prisoners.

IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas in 2006

The Egyptians are aware that if there are Palestinian elections, Hamas would need to present accomplishments to the Palestinian public.

Palestinian sources said Egypt has been working hard to advance a deal to free Shalit, who has been in Hamas captivity since June 2006, since Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement last week, according to the report. "Reliable" sources quoted in the report said the Egyptians intend to present their plan to an envoy who is due to arrive in Cairo shortly.

It was not immediately clear whether this was a reference to David Meidan, who was recently appointed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's negotiator on the Shalit issue. Meidan is due in Egypt shortly, as Haaretz reported last week.

Senior Egyptian officials expressed optimism about the chances for a deal on Shalit's release. The Egyptians have resumed mediating Shalit negotiations and have made it clear to Hamas that they want an agreement on the issue wrapped up quickly.

Netanyahu referred to Shalit at a Memorial Day ceremony on Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill last night.

Not a day passes in which his government is not working to bring home Israel's captive and missing soldiers, "including Gilad Shalit, who is being held by a cruel enemy," Netanyahu said. (See Memorial Day coverage, Page A4. )

Prior to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Hamas was suspicious of his intentions on the matter, suspecting that he did not want a deal concluded because it would complicate matters for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. More than a week ago, two leaders of the Hamas military wing visited Egypt, where they reportedly made contact with Egyptian intelligence officials on the Shalit case.

The Al Jazeera website reported that Egyptian officials also discussed the Shalit case with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal while Meshal was in Cairo last week for the signing ceremony.

So far the Hamas military wing has been standing in the way of a deal, but observers expect that it will be willing to compromise because political issues will garner increased attention with elections coming up. In addition, the military wing is currently seen as relatively weak.

Such a compromise could include willingness to accept Israel's release of Hamas prisoners to Gaza, rather than the West Bank.

The Egyptian officials responsible for maintaining ties with the Hamas leadership are Murad Muwafi, Egypt's new intelligence chief, and one of his deputies, Mohammed Ibrahim.

Muwafi has the trust of Hamas and Ibrahim has been involved in Shalit negotiations from the beginning. Since German mediator Gerhard Conrad has failed to get Israel and Hamas to agree on the terms for Shalit's release, Egypt has in effect taken over as the primary intermediary.

Noam Shalit, the captive soldier's father, told Haaretz yesterday that he had not been provided any new information on negotiations for his son's release and said Netanyahu's remarks yesterday were nothing new.

What's important is the results, he said, and by that measure, the bottom line is that his son has been in captivity for nearly five years.