Talks on releasing kidnapped Israeli soldier collapse

JERUSALEM — A flurry of last-minute negotiations by Hamas and Israel to exchange captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit for Palestinian prisoners ended in failure Monday night as Israeli negotiators returned from Cairo, Egypt, and reported to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that they couldn't strike a deal.

The negotiations, which have been going on since shortly after Shalit's capture in June 2006, have been conducted indirectly between the two sides in Cairo, as each refuses to recognize the other.

The talks reportedly have focused on the possible release of 450 hard-core Hamas militants, some of whom are accused of planning the bloodiest attacks of the latest Palestinian uprising. Israel apparently has softened its original position, agreeing to release many of these prisoners, but not all of them, and insisting that many of them not return home but be sent to Gaza or abroad.

As Olmert's government comes to an end, the man who was prime minister when Shalit was captured seemed determined to secure the soldier's release, leading to intense negotiations with the aim of bringing up a deal for Cabinet approval Tuesday afternoon. The incoming prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been silent about the negotiations so far but it's been widely reported that he was anxious that the matter be resolved before he took office.

Before late Monday evening, hopes were high in Israel that the talks had succeeded. However, when the negotiators met with Olmert, they reported that their efforts had failed. Olmert accused Hamas of derailing the negotiations. Mark Regev, Olmert's spokesman, told McClatchy that "Hamas backtracked on understandings that had already been reached."

Israel's leading daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, reflected the national mood Tuesday with a large photo of Shalit's mother above a one-word banner headline: "Disappointment."

Hamas spokesmen, for the most part, say that their position hasn't changed: They demand the release of all 450 prisoners to their homes. According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Hamas leader Mushir el Masri said Monday night, "The only solution is Israel's consent to accepting all our terms. Any attempt not to accept them has led to failure. The door to negotiations for a deal on Shalit is still open."

For the past several days, public pressure had increased on the Olmert government to finish the negotiations before Netanyahu takes office. Shalit's parents set up a protest tent across from the prime minister's office where they've received hundreds of supporters, including a number of Cabinet ministers.

There also was opposition to a deal, especially from the families of victims of Hamas attacks and from the right. Arye Eldad, a National Union party member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, told Israel Radio on Monday: "Whoever agrees to any price needs to know the price in Israelis who will be murdered by those who are released."

Eldad proposed a brutal alternative if Shalit isn't returned. "On the other hand, we need to give them an ultimatum, that if Shalit is not released in a week the leaders of Hamas, including Haniyeh, will be executed," he said, referring to former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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