Progress Made on Shalit Deal, but Still Not Imminent

Israeli security sources confirmed over the weeked that some progress had been made toward a prisoner swap for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit. But the defense establishment said a deal with Hamas, which is holding Shalit in cooperation with other organizations, had not yet been clinched and the soldier's release was not imminent.

The Israeli negotiator for prisoners and missing soldiers, Ofer Dekel, was in Cairo more than a week ago and made progress in talks with senior Egyptian officials. Between 400 and 500 prisoners are to be exchanged for Shalit, according to a report on Channel 2 Friday.

Agreement also appears close on the structure of the swap, with groups of prisoners to be freed in exchange for Palestinian and Egyptian assurances of Shalit's release before his return to Israel, near the end of the process.

The identity of the prisoners to be released is still a matter of contention. Hamas wants a large number of senior figures freed, among them those serving sentences for the murder of Israelis.

Israeli sources close to the process said Egyptian pressure is having an effect on senior Hamas officials and that Hamas has shown "signs of pragmatism" in recent weeks with regard to Shalit's release.

Hamas apparently understands that progress toward the release will lead to a more favorable attitude on the part of the international community toward a Palestinian unity government, which will ease economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority.

Israel believes pressure from the Egyptians and the Saudis is behind the direct appeal by Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas' political wing, to Shalit's father Noam Shalit. Speaking at a press conference in Cairo over the weekend, Meshal said: "As a father, I understand the pain. But the soldier's father must understand two truths: there are 11,000 prisoners in Israeli jails and two, the ball is in Israel's court and they are the only ones delaying the deal."

An Israeli government source said Israel was "sorry about the cynical use Khaled Meshal was trying to make of the Shalit family by appealing to them directly."

Noam Shalit responded yesterday to Meshal's call by saying: "I do not know how to relate to the statements, especially the one about the ball being in Israel's court. I am therefore approaching Israeli officials in the hope of understanding what is behind Meshal's statements," Shalit told Haaretz.

Meshal said he had reached a number of agreements with the Egyptians in Cairo toward freeing Shalit. A member of Hamas' political bureau, Iazat Risheq, said yesterday that Egypt had promised to work toward persuading the international community to lift economic sanctions from the new Palestinian government.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is to meet this week with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah. The latter called in an interview on Channel 2 for the PA government to accept the demands of the Quartet to recognize both Israel and signed agreements and to reject all forms of terror.

Abbas met Friday with the European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana. Palestinian sources said Solana told Abbas the EU would work with ministers in the unity government who were not Hamas members.

Abbas also met yesterday in Paris with French President Jacques Chirac, after which he said: "We must continue talking to the Israelis. We are their partners for peace."

An associate of Abbas told Haaretz the PA chairman had the impression Europeans want to work with the unity government, but were concerned about a confrontation with the United States. The source said the U.S. administration had been considering cooperating with ministers who were not Hamas members, but backtracked under Israeli pressure.

Before his meeting with Solana, Abbas met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Palestinian sources said the German position was tougher than that of the British and the French on the PA accepting the Quartet's demands.