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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Egypt's intel chief: Shalit affair may end 'very soon'

Egypt's intel chief: Shalit affair may end 'very soon'

By Haaretz Service and The Associated Press
Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman on Wednesday said after talks with
Israeli officials that negotiations over the release of captured Israel
Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit were nearing an end.

"The affair will reach its conclusion very soon," he told reporters after
meeting Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday that he was "very satisfied" with
talks between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Suleiman in Tel Aviv earlier in
the day.

The two met to discuss a prisoner exchange for Shalit and the shaky truce
between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, which came into effect Sunday.

"We are going to discuss strategic security matters," Peretz as he welcomed
Suleiman to his office at the Defense Ministry. "Today's guest is one of the
most important and influential guests, and a great contributor to the shaping
and stability of the current situation, a supporter of peace.

"There is no doubt that his presence today, given the situation, is
significant and will have significance in the future as well," he said.

Shalit has been held by Palestinian militants since his abduction during a
cross-border raid on his IDF base in June.

Olmert said in his Sde Boker speech earlier this week that Shalit's return was
a precondition for diplomatic negotiations with the PA, but that Israel would
release many Palestinian prisoners, including those serving lengthy sentences,
once Shalit has been freed.

During the meetings, Suleiman was to brief Peretz and Olmert on his talks with
Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, last week. After these
talks, the Egyptians said that progress had been made toward finalizing a
prisoner exchange. He was also to discuss ways to shore up the cease-fire and
other issues related to efforts to promote diplomatic negotiations between
Israel and the PA.

But according to a source familiar with the negotiations over Shalit, these
talks are currently at an impasse due to disagreements over how many
Palestinian prisoners Israel will free in exchange for Shalit.

The source said Hamas is willing to defer discussion of two other potential
sticking points - the severity of the crimes committed by the prisoners to be
released and the exact identity of these prisoners - but is insisting that
Israel release at least 1,000 prisoners.

That is down from its earlier demand of 1,400, but Israeli negotiators told
Egypt, which is mediating the talks, that Olmert had authorized them to agree
to a maximum of 300 prisoners.

Despite this problem, another source involved in the talks predicted that a
deal could be finalized within a matter of weeks. "By Id al-Adha [the Feast of
the Sacrifice], which occurs at the end of December, it is possible to
conclude the deal," he said.

But a senior Israeli official predicted that the prisoner exchange would
ultimately only occur as part of a package deal that would include Israeli
recognition of a new Palestinian government, the resumption of European aid to
the PA, and a transfer of the taxes Israel collects on the PA's behalf, but
has refused to release since Hamas took power, on the grounds that it is a
terrorist organization committed to Israel's destruction.

Palestinian officials have repeatedly said a deal is close, but Israeli
defense officials say the negotiations are far from over.

According to reports, Hamas is demanding the release of the prisoners in three
stages. In the first phase, Hamas-allied militants would free Shalit and hand
him to the Egyptians. At the same time, Israel would free women prisoners and
minors in its custody.

Among those Hamas wants freed are Hamas prisoners serving long sentences and
Marwan Barghouti, a senior official in Palestinian Authority Chairman Mhamoud
Abbas' Fatah movement who is serving five life sentences for his involvement
in attacks on Israelis.

Kadoura Fares, a former Fatah legislator, said Wednesday he received personal
assurances from Meshal that Barghouti would be part of any swap.

Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of three
militant groups involved in Shalit's capture, said there was no agreement with
Israel on the number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed or a timetable for
the swap.

Abu Mujahed said the Palestinian factions have not yet presented a list with
names of prisoners it wants freed.

Earlier this week, senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad said there was
progress in the talks, but suggested Hamas' demands were not acceptable to

Hamas "has a tendency to demand prices that are very high, to establish its
position and to weaken all the moderate forces," Gilad said.

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