Netanyahu to Russia: Pressure Hamas to Free Shalit

Family of abducted soldier reaches Haifa area on day 3 of its protest march to Jerusalem, accompanied by 3,000 supporters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday asked Russia to exert influence on Hamas to bring about the immediate release of captured Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit.

In talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Netanyahu asked Moscow to take advantage of its relations with the Islamist group to push for a prisoner swap deal that would free Shalit after four years in captivity.

The family of the abducted soldier, seized by Palestinian militants in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip, arrived in the Haifa area on Tuesday with some 3,000 supporters on the third day of a protest march to the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem.

The protest march, led by Noam Shalit to free his son, Gilad.
Tomer Neuberg

Marchers aim to reach Jerusalem on Friday after setting out on Sunday from the Shalit family home in the Galilee town of Mitzpeh Hila.

Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, said last week that they would remain in a protest tent outside Netanyahu's residence until their son was released and could go home with them.

Also on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said following his meeting with Lavrov that there was "absolutely no chance of reaching a Palestinian state before the year 2012".

Lieberman reportedly told Lavrov, who arrived in Israel on an official visit, that Israel opposed Russia's recent advances toward Hamas. Lavrov responded that it was impossible to ignore the Islamist organization's popularity amongst Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.

The reported closed-door disagreement quickly became a public one, as the Russian minister openly defended his country's Middle East policy.

"Russia is doing the right thing by contacting Hamas," adding that "doing nothing would help no one," Lavrov said in a joint press conference with Lieberman. "In all our talks with Hamas we have tried to convince them to switch to the political track, and support the Arab peace initiative."

Lieberman, in turn, dismissed the disagreement, saying that the fact that the two nations were conducting dialogue in the matter was no secret.