‘I face dilemma of freeing Schalit vs. defending Israelis’
The Jerusalem Post (Link) - Ben Hartman & AP (December 22, 2009)
As the nation held its breath on a prisoner swap proposal that would secure the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emphasized the dilemma he was facing during a meeting with representatives of the Almagor terror victims organization, which opposes any prisoner swap deal.
�I�m faced with two vital principles: the desire to redeem captives and the desire to defend Israeli citizens from future attacks,� he said, according to a statement from his office in Jerusalem where the meeting took place.
�I have listened with great attentiveness to your personal and difficult stories, and have noted all the important points you have raised,� Netanyahu said at the end of the meeting. �The meeting with you was important for me on both a personal and national level.�
One of the Almagor representatives, Yossi Tzur, told Army Radio that he got the impression that Netanyahu had still not made up his mind regarding the prisoner swap proposal.
The representatives had been expected to ask the prime minister to stop the negotiations for Schalit�s release and to take alternative steps to secure his freedom.
Almagor�s suggestions include pressuring Hamas via sanctions, cutting the supply of both fuel and money to Gaza, and toughening conditions of Hamas prisoners currently being held in Israeli prisons.
Almagor also wants a public debate on the prisoner swap issue, as well as for the names of prisoners who would be released as part of any deal to be made public. The organization opposes the release of any prisoners who have committed murder.
Earlier Tuesday, Reuters reported that the German mediator who was scheduled to visit Gaza to give Hamas Israel�s response to the terror group�s proposal had delayed his trip until Wednesday.
Citing an official close to the negotiations, the news agency said the mediator agreed to an Israeli request for more time to modify its response.
The Prime Minister�s Office would not confirm if Israel had indeed requested a postponement of the mediator�s Gaza visit.
A Palestinian close to the negotiations said the German mediator had set a Wednesday deadline for Israeli action. The Palestinian, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there would be no further negotiations.
Israeli media had reported that Israel delivered a response to Hamas�s demands for the release of 1,000 Palestinians, many of whom were involved in attacks. Without identifying sources, the reports said Israel would approve a swap if Hamas agrees to the deportation of some prisoners.
A government official said the question of whether certain prisoners would return to the West Bank or be deported was �clearly� an issue. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the talks.
A Palestinian official said that in addition to seeking to deport about 100 prisoners, Israel was also refusing to free seven of those involved in the most violent attacks on Israelis, including the bombing masterminds. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks.
A senior Hamas official, who also declined to be named, confirmed receipt of the Israeli answer. The Hamas government was holding its weekly meeting Tuesday, and the deal was expected to be on the agenda.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak stressed Israel�s responsibility to bring Schalit home, albeit not at any price.
Barak�s comments followed the inner cabinet meeting Monday night for final marathon discussions, and while speaking about the state�s obligation to the soldier, he kept mum on details of the Israeli response.
�We are intensively formulating the correct way to promote the Schalit topic,� Barak told high school students in Rishon Lezion. �This is a sensitive time and it would be wrong to expound upon the topic, but we, as those who sent Gilad, feel a responsibility� to make every feasible and worthy move to bring Gilad home, though not at any price.�
Barak, who is a member of the inner cabinet, responded to criticism leveled at the potential price Israel would pay by releasing hundreds of convicted killers for one Israeli soldier.
�As far as prisoner exchanges go, we are on a slippery slope, from the Jibril deal to [the exchange for Elhanan] Tannenbaum, and there is no choice but to brake,� he told a student. �It is clear to all, within the inner cabinet as well as among the general public, that the modes of action regarding prisoner changes must change.�
Likewise, inner cabinet member Eli Yishai was quoted by Army Radio as saying Tuesday evening that a prisoner swap must not be done at any price.
Meanwhile, senior Fatah official, Dr. Sufiyan Abu-Zaydeh, former PA minister for prisoner affairs, called on Israel to okay the deal to release Schalit as soon as possible.
Abu-Zaydeh was invited to the Knesset Tuesday to address a forum on the two-state solution, but during the course of his talk, was requested by event organizers in Kadima to comment on the Schalit negotiations.
�One name more, one name less. One more prisoner, one less prisoner. Forget about all that, and do the important thing quickly,� said Abu Zaydeh - himself a former security prisoner.
He added that the deal - said to involve around 1,000 prisoners, was far from releasing all of the approximately 10,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
�As long as there are prisoners and as long as the conflict continues, there will be people who seek solutions outside of the framework of negotiations.�
After the nocturnal inner cabinet meeting ended overnight Monday, reports began emerging that the seven-member forum had reached its decision. Israel Radio cited an unnamed senior Israeli official as confirming one such report.
Former Fatah-Tanzim leader and terrorist Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences after being convicted in fatal attacks against Israelis, would be allowed to return to his West Bank home, a Palestinian close to the negotiations said. Hamas agreed that several other hard-core convicts would be deported, he said.
An official familiar with the talks told the Reuters news agency Tuesday that Hamas would not lessen its demands upon receiving Israel�s latest response. He added that any agreement would have to be approved by the terrorist organization�s leadership in Damascus.
According to the Prime Minister�s Office, the inner cabinet has given Israeli mediator Hagai Hadas a �green light� to continue negotiations with Hamas over a deal to secure Schalit�s release.
After more than four hours of talks, Prime Minister Netanyahu�s office released a statement early Tuesday morning saying only that instructions were given to the negotiating team about �the continuation of efforts to bring Gilad Schalit home safe and sound.� There was no word of a decision, further meetings or steps. The decision to continue negotiations came in lieu of any final decision by the government to agree unequivocally to Hamas�s demands.
The inner cabinet met into the night Monday in what was described by insiders as a final marathon discussion on the prisoner-swap deal that would end Schalit�s Gaza captivity.
According to sources close to the deliberations, the proposal to release some 950 Hamas gunmen and activists, some of whom have been convicted of fatal terrorist attacks, for the 23-year-old soldier was expected to gain approval by the forum, after which it would be presented to the full 30-member cabinet.
The Jerusalem Post has learned that several ministers against the swap deal are reconsidering their opposition as the discussions in the inner cabinet progress.