Israel Taps New Negotiators for Shalit Deal

Activists on behalf of abducted soldier to rally at Gaza border to mark third anniversary of his kidnapping.

A new negotiating team is examining ways to move forward in the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces soldier abducted by Hamas nearly three years ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday after meetings in Egypt.

"The new team, headed by Hagai Hadas, is taking shape. I assume it will be in a position to begin work in the near future and hope that it will do so discreetly in order to maximize the chances for results," Barak said.

According to information recently received in Israel, Egypt would like to see negotiations for the release of Shalit resume from the point at which they left off during the final days of the Olmert government.

However, the Egyptians have also asked Israel to abandon its plan to exile some of the Palestinian prisoners that will be released in exchange for Shalit's freedom.

Barak met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and senior figures in his government, including Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman. Barak also met with his counterpart, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

Security sources say that Hadas has already held initial talks with Egyptian mediators, but it is not known whether he traveled to Cairo for that purpose.

Talks for a deal on Shalit collapsed after Olmert left office. Israel had agreed to release more than 300 Palestinian prisoners who had been jailed for involvement in the killing of Israelis, out of a total of 450 that Hamas demanded to be freed.

Israel blamed the failure to strike an agreement on Hamas; the Islamic Palestinian group ostensibly reversed its stance and reverted to its original, hard-line positions at the last minute, in spite agreements to the contrary.

"I would prefer in the matter of Gilad Shalit not to make any statements," Barak said Sunday. "We are committed to this issue and I have said before that it is important to do everything possible to bring him home. The less I talk about it as defense minister, the better. I will only say that we do not forget Gilad, and certainly not now that three years have passed since his kidnapping."

During the talks in Cairo, Barak heard about efforts to reach an agreement in the Gaza Strip, which Egyptian mediators are trying to frame within a wider settlement, which would also include internal Palestinian reconciliation and the reopening of the border crossings of the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian sources said Sunday that the reason Barak visited Egypt was to hear about Cairo's plan to advance a broader deal for a cease-fire and a rapprochement between the Palestinian factions. The sources added that following the address of President Barack Obama in Cairo two weeks ago, a decision was made in Cairo to step up pressure on the Palestinians so they will understand that without domestic reconciliation, there can be no progress in the peace process.

A group of activists on behalf of Shalit will hold demonstrations tomorrow at crossings into the Gaza Strip as part of commemoration of the three-year anniversary of the soldier's abduction during a Hamas raid into Israel.

The activists said the demonstrations will be held under the banner of "the people of Israel do not forget Gilad Shalit," and they called on the government, but also Hamas, to take advantage of the lull in fighting to bring Shalit home.

Also Sunday, the former chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu, participated in a public prayer service at the Western Wall dedicated to the "difficult political and security situation." He also led a prayer for the release of Shalit.

Another subject discussed by Barak in Egypt was the situation in Iran, where protests continued Sunday following claims by the opposition of electoral fraud. Both Israel and Egypt agreed that the events in Iran are likely to bring about dramatic changes to the entire region.