- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s outgoing prime minister on Saturday ruled out a long-term truce in Gaza without the release of an Israeli soldier held in the Hamas-ruled territory a sign that a month of negotiations may have stalled.

Egypt has been mediating indirect cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas since Israel unilaterally halted its fierce three-week offensive in Gaza. Under an emerging truce deal, Israel gradually would ease its border blockade of Gaza in exchange for a halt to weapons smuggling and attacks by Gaza militants.

In parallel, Egypt also brokered talks on a prisoner swap — hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel in exchange for Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier seized by Hamas-allied militants in June 2006. Progress has been reported in those negotiations, with the remaining dispute apparently focusing on several prisoners involved in particularly bloody attacks on Israelis.

Hamas has sought to separate the truce deal from the prisoner swap. However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday said the two were inextricably linked.

“The position of the prime minister is that Israel will not reach any understandings regarding the calm (cease-fire) before the release of Gilad Schalit,” said a statement by Mr. Olmert’s office.

In Gaza, Hamas officials also reported new snags.

Hamas wants a cease-fire for 18 months, with the possibility of extending it. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum and Hamas legislator Salah Bardawil said Israel has renewed demands for an open-ended cease-fire.

Mr. Barhoum said Hamas drafted its final version of a truce deal and presented it to Egypt. “Israel returned (it) to ask for an open-ended calm without a ceiling,” he said, adding that Egypt is trying to bridge the gap.

Egypt is also key to a third set of complex negotiations.

Starting Feb. 22, it will host reconciliation talks between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas wrested control of Gaza from forces loyal to Mr. Abbas in June 2007. In response, Mr. Abbas fired the Hamas-led government and set up a rival administration in the West Bank.

Hamas and Fatah officials held preparatory talks in Cairo in recent days. Both sides reported a positive atmosphere and said they talked about the fate of political activists held by Hamas in Gaza and by Fatah in the West Bank.

Fatah negotiator Nabil Shaath said the two sides agreed to solve the prisoner issue. Asked if prisoners would be released, Mr. Shaath said, “Yes, I think we will start before the 22nd (of February).”

Mr. Barhoum said Hamas prisoners held in the West Bank must be freed in coming days.

Relations between Hamas and Mr. Abbas have deteriorated steadily since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006. Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, and it was not clear whether the upcoming round will be successful.

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