Obama 'Personally Pleased' by Gilad Shalit Return

U.S. President urges Israelis and Palestinians to take steps toward resuming peace negotiations; French President says Shalit's release a 'huge relief' for France.

U.S. President Barack Obama is pleased that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been freed and wants Israelis and Palestinians to take steps toward resuming peace negotiations, the White House said on Tuesday.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters during the president's bus tour in North Carolina that it was not yet clear how Shalit's release would impact the Middle East peace process but said Obama was "personally pleased" by the development." "Each side needs to take steps that make it easier to return to negotiations rather than harder," Carney said.

Shalit uniform 18.10.11 dotz
IDF Spokesman

The envoy for the Middle East Quartet of peacemakers, Tony Blair, also welcomed Shalit's release, saying that it was a "moment of great joy" for the soldier and his family as well as for the families of the Palestinian prisoners.

Blair, who represents the foursome of the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia, also said that the moment could prove to be an opportunity to kick start the peace process.

"I hope it also offers us a moment of opportunity, and not simply in respect of Gaza where Hamas are presently in charge, but also for a...revival of credibility in a peace process we really need to prioritize," he told the BBC.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was on a surprise visit to Libya, echoed Blair's sentiments, saying she was pleased that Shalit's "long ordeal" had ended, adding that he had been held for "far too long," the BBC reported.

Meanwhile United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that he expected the prisoner swap to boost prospects for the wider peace process.

"With this release, it will have a far-reaching positive impact to the stalled Middle East peace process," Ban said at the end of a three-day trip to Switzerland.

"I am very encouraged by the prisoner exchange today after many, many years of negotiation. The United Nations has been calling for [an end to] the unacceptable detention of Gilad Shalit and also the release of all Palestinians whose human rights have been abused all the time."

Shalit officially passed into Israeli custody mid-morning on Tuesday, after he had spent 1,940 days in Hamas captivity. Israel and Hamas sealed a deal through Egyptian and German mediation last week to secure Shalit's release in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday said it was a "huge relief" for his country that Shalit, who holds dual French-Israeli citizenship, had been released.

Sarkozy said he expected Shalit to come visit France soon, adding"The fact that Gilad was recognised as being French from the beginning contributed greatly, I think, to keeping him alive," according to remarks carried by the French press agency, AFP.

He echoed Ban's sentiments expressing home that stalled Middle East peace talks could now resume.

"I hope that this will allow talks to resume" Sarkozy said, according to AFP, which also quoted him as saying "that there are also detainees [in Israel] from the West Bank that could return to the West Bank."

The U.S. State Department told Haaretz it welcomed Shalit's release, adding that his "cruel captivity by Hamas" went on too long.

"We look forward to Gilad returning to his family and friends," it added.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday congratulated Netanyahu and all those involved with bringing Shalit safely home, and commended his family's struggle for their son and brother's release.

"I am full of admiration for the courage and fortitude which Sergeant Shalit and his family have shown through his long cruel and unjustified captivity," said Cameron.

Cameron said he hopes the prisoner exchange will serve as a step toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and reaffirmed his support for Israel's efforts to defeat terrorism.

"We remain strongly committed to the cause of peace in the Middle East – with Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in security. We will continue to work for direct negotiations to achieve that end,” he added.

Britain Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed Shalit's release and called on Israel to build on the momentum provided by the deal to advance peace talks with the Palestinians.

"It provides a glimmer of hope in an often bleak scene that a successful negotiation can be carried out on this difficult subject," Hague told Reuters during a trip to North Africa.

"I know it is important for Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiaition on the Middle East peace process and to approach it in the same way," he added. "In particular, we believe Israel should be ready to make a more decisive offer than Israeli leaders have made in recent years on the peace process to give talks a chance of success."

Hague said that tight controls of crossings into Hamas-controlled Gaza had backfired.

"I also hope it will encourage Israel to relax the controls on the crossing points into Gaza. The extent of the controls has generally served to strengthen Hamas rather than to weaken them," he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated the captive soldier’s release as well, praising Egypt's role in the prisoner swap as "decisive."

"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 said.

Though Merkel made no mention of previous mediation efforts by German intelligence (BND) officials, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle alluded to them, saying: "I'm happy that Germany could contribute to Gilad Shalit's release.”