- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday ordered Israeli negotiators to make a last push to wind up a deal with the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers to release a captive Israeli soldier before he leaves office.

As two Israeli envoys extended their stay in Cairo to work with Egyptian mediators, defense officials said the sides were closing in on a prisoner swap deal. A government minister voiced optimism that if a deal is presented to the Cabinet, it would win approval.

“Let’s wait another day and see what the results are. I imagine that the results will be positive,” Cabinet minister Rafi Eitan told Israel Radio.

Olmert has been racing to win the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit before he is replaced by incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has been putting together a coalition government following Feb. 10 elections and is expected to complete the task as soon as this week.

Winning Schalit’s release would give Olmert a key diplomatic victory in his final days as prime minister. Schalit, 22, was captured by Hamas-allied militants in June 2006 in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip that killed two other soldiers. The kidnapping took place shortly after Olmert took office, and the case has clouded his tenure.

Hamas has demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including dozens convicted of killing Israelis.

While Olmert has balked at that demand in the past, the prospect of leaving office with Schalit still in captivity apparently has forced him to soften his position.

Hamas, too, could be eager to reach a deal before Netanyahu takes office. Netanyahu is putting together what is shaping up to be a hawkish coalition that might be less accommodating to Hamas demands.

Early Monday, Netanyahu’s Likud Party said it had initialed a coalition agreement with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party. Under the deal, Yisrael Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, would become foreign minister.

For Hamas, a prisoner swap would also be an important step toward ending Israel’s crushing economic blockade of Gaza. Following a bloody Israeli military offensive in Gaza earlier this year, Hamas is desperate to reopen the area’s borders to allow in reconstruction supplies. Israel says it won’t ease the sanctions until Schalit comes home.

Last week, Schalit’s family set up camp in a protest tent outside Olmert’s residence to heat up the pressure on the lame-duck Israeli leader. On Monday, Schalit’s brother, Yoel, said the government hadn’t updated the family on the last-minute negotiations.

“I don’t know of any signs of a breakthrough,” he said, as dozens of supporters milled about.

In Cairo, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said there were no developments. Hamas officials have repeatedly said the group would not ease its demands.

Egyptian security officials on Monday confirmed that the top commander of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jaabari, was in Egypt for the talks after secretly crossing from Gaza four days ago.

One security official, who was among several police officers in charge of escorting Palestinian delegations in Cairo, said he met with Jaabari for 30 minutes in Cairo. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. One of them said that the visit is secret and declined to give further details.

Jaabari’s presence is significant because he was closely involved in Schalit’s capture and continued detention and is believed to be leading Hamas’ talks with Egyptian officials on Schalit’s release.

Olmert originally had set a Sunday deadline for his envoys to reach a deal. But as talks dragged on past midnight, he announced they would remain in Cairo for an extra day.

Senior defense officials said Israel agreed on Sunday to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but that the sides were still haggling over a small number of names. Israel wants some of the prisoners to remain in jail or be deported if freed, for fear they would carry out new attacks if they returned home, they added.

Those officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were continuing.

Late Sunday, Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli police officers traveling in a vehicle in the West Bank, said Israeli security officials.

It was the first fatal shooting attack in the West Bank since April 2008. Israel TV’s military analyst said the attack was likely timed to coincide with the talks over freeing the Israeli soldier.

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