- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Two Israeli envoys returned Monday from intensive talks in Cairo about a prisoner exchange with Hamas, a final effort by the present government to win freedom for a soldier held nearly three years by Gaza militants.

The envoys went straight to a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert without making a statement.

Winning the soldier’s release would give Olmert a key diplomatic victory in his final days in office. Sgt. Gilad 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, shortly after Olmert became prime minister, has clouded his tenure.

Olmert scheduled a special session of his Cabinet for Tuesday to decide about a deal. There was no word on whether the envoys _ Shin Bet security chief Yuval Diskin and Defense Ministry official Ofer Dekel _ brought back a proposed agreement, and Israeli media reported they might return to Cairo for more talks.

Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the military chief of staff, cut short a trip to the U.S. to join the Cabinet meeting.

The special session was originally set for Monday, but Olmert postponed it to allow time for more talks. He has said this is the last round before he turns the prisoner issue over to the next government. Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu came to an agreement early Monday with a right-wing party, the first to sign on. Netanyahu hopes to complete the process in the coming days.

Israeli defense officials said earlier Monday that there was progress in the talks, and a Hamas official agreed, while noting outstanding differences included the list of prisoners to be freed. Israel insists that Palestinians convicted of planning or carrying out deadly attacks on Israelis be deported to neighboring countries.

Senior defense officials said Israel agreed on Sunday to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but the sides were still haggling over a small number of names.

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

Netanyahu favors a tough line toward the Palestinians and could be expected to be less willing than Olmert to release prominent prisoners in exchange for the soldier, though Netanyahu has not spoken publicly about the issue.

Israeli critics have noted that dozens of Israelis have been killed in the past by militants released in similar exchanges.

For Hamas, a prisoner swap would be an important step toward ending Israel’s crushing economic blockade of Gaza. Israel says it won’t ease the sanctions until the soldier comes home. 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.

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. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

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



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