Obstacles and false starts on road to Shalit deal

Obstacles and false starts on road to Shalit deal

If captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is freed in the prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas that prompted an emergency Israeli Cabinet session late Tuesday night, it will raise two immediate questions.

Which side finally acceded to the other’s demands after years of fruitless negotiations since Shalit was captured in a June 2006 raid along the Israel-Gaza border, and what took so long to get here?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered some hints about the first issue in a hastily called news conference shortly before going into the Cabinet meeting.

This deal, he suggested, was the best Israel was going to get, so if Israel was ever going to recover Shalit, it had to happen now.

“With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don’t know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal — or any deal at all for that matter,” Netanyahu said on Israeli television. “The window appeared following fears that collapsing Mideast regimes and the rise of extremist forces would make Gilad Shalit’s return impossible.”

He added, “If all goes according to plan, Gilad will be returning to Israel in the coming days.”

The deal reportedly was signed by the two sides on Oct. 6 in Cairo, following years of negotiations and mediation via the Egyptians. News of the deal, whose exact contours remain unknown, was first reported by the satellite TV station Al Arabiya.

Shalit’s release would mark a remarkable end to a five-year saga that has transfixed the Israeli public, frustrated two successive Israeli governments, and spanned two wars.

He was taken captive at age 19 on June 25, 2006, and almost immediately his family launched an incessant public campaign to free him. Shalit’s plight struck a chord in the Jewish state and the Jewish world, and Israelis and Jews from all walks of life and political camps took part in activities calling for his release.

It’s not clear whether this public campaign helped usher in the deal announced Tuesday or whether it hindered its being reached.

Shalit’s family believed they had to keep up the public pressure on the Israeli government to seal the deal. At the official state Independence Day ceremony last Yom Ha’atzmaut, in May, Shalit’s brother Yoel darted onstage with his girlfriend and a banner reading “Shalit is still alive.” Instead of getting arrested for the stunt on national television broadcast, he got an audience with Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

But some analysts warned that all the public clamor to free Shalit only made a deal more difficult by increasing the price Hamas demanded for his release. Indeed, for years Israel insisted that price was too high.

On Tuesday, Time magazine reported that the exchange would include as many as 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — first, 450 named by Hamas and then 550 named by Israel. The prisoners “will include as many as 315 men convicted of killing hundreds of Israelis in terror attacks,” Time foreign editor Tony Karon wrote.

Critics of prisoner-exchange swaps warn that such deals merely encourage Israel’s enemies to take more Israelis captive.

Such criticism followed Ehud Olmert’s decision in July 2008 to trade five Lebanese prisoners — including notorious murderer Samir Kuntar — and the bodies of 199 others in exchange for the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the two Israeli soldiers captured in the border attack by Hizbullah that sparked the 2006 Lebanon War. Goldwasser and Regev were thought to have been killed in the attack or shortly thereafter, but until the coffins with their bodies arrived on Israeli soil, Israeli officials said they could not know with certainty that they were dead.

Shalit’s case has been a little different. In a video released by his captors in October 2009, a frail-but-otherwise-healthy looking Shalit held a current newspaper and read a message asking Israeli authorities to conclude an agreement for his release. In all his years in captivity, Shalit was allowed no international or Red Cross visitors.

As Israel’s Cabinet debated the deal late Tuesday night, the heads of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet internal security service all reportedly expressed support for the deal.

On Tuesday afternoon, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ expressed cautious optimism over the reports of a tentative agreement.

“While we recognize the difficult decisions the Israeli government had to make to bring Gilad home, we, together with Klal Yisrael, are overjoyed by the prospect of his return to Israel and his family. We pray that this New Year will be filled with peace and joy for the Shalits and all Israel,” said Lori Klinghoffer, UJC president.

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