In U.S. and Europe, Cautious Hopes for Improved Mood in Region

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner says 'hard to say' what impact Shalit prisoner swap deal, says U.S. wants 'to see concrete steps that improve and create a more constructive atmosphere.'

U.S. officials and European leaders voiced cautious hopes yesterday that the Shalit deal could improve the atmosphere in the Middle East, though the State Department said there were concerns about some of the names on the list of Palestinian prisoners to be released.

"We have looked at some of these individuals and we've communicated our position after we became aware that specific individuals have been identified as part of this release," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a briefing.

"As I said previously, we weren't part of any negotiations. But we've communicated our position to the Israeli government. We had concerns, I don't want to get into the substance of our concerns too greatly."

As for the effects of the deal on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Toner said: "If you're parsing what this means for the peace process, it's difficult for us to say. Obviously, we want to see a constructive atmosphere exist between the two parties, one that leads to direct negotiations ultimately. That's our goal. I can't say whether this is going to lead in that direction or not. We would just ... want to see gestures on the part of both sides to build that kind of constructive atmosphere."

According to Toner, "It's hard to say what this deal will mean for improving that atmosphere of relations. We want to see concrete steps that improve and create a more constructive atmosphere."

He added: "We have the three red lines, if you will, about Hamas that we've often spoken about ... that they renounce violence, that they accept existing agreements, and that they recognize Israel's right to exist. And if they could meet those requirements, then we certainly would welcome them as part of the political process."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on a visit to Libya that Shalit had been held for "far too long."

European leaders also hailed Shalit's release. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had met with the Shalit family a number of times over the years, said the soldier's release was "a huge relief for France." Shalit is also a French citizen.

Sarkozy said he "believed that the fact that Gilad was recognized as being French from the beginning contributed greatly ... to keeping him alive." He also hoped Shalit would travel to France soon and that yesterday's events would help revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his "joy and relief" at Shalit's release after five years in captivity, paying tribute to the "courage and fortitude" shown by the sergeant and his family. He voiced hopes that this might lead to better days in the Middle East.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country's intelligence service has been helpful over the years trying to mediate Shalit's release, singled out Egypt for praise. Her spokesman in Berlin said she "especially thanked" Egypt for its decisive contribution in recent months, saying that "successful cooperation between Israel and Egypt on this issue gives grounds for hope that recent tensions between them will give way to good neighborly relations."

She also wished Shalit a quick recovery from his ordeal and a resumption of his previous life.

Merkel made no mention of the German mediation, but Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was happy that "Germany could contribute to Gilad Shalit's release .... It was a matter of course to be available to help," he said in a statement. "This is an expression of our friendship with Israel."