JERUSALEM (AFP) – Egyptian-brokered negotiations on a prisoner swap with Hamas are at a crucial stage and any deal will be decided in days, senior Israeli officials said Sunday as two envoys held talks in Cairo.
A special cabinet session on Monday will hear the report of the two envoys and will then make its decision, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the start of the weekly government meeting.
“My envoys will return this evening and will report at the cabinet meeting tomorrow,” he said.
“The government will receive the update and in accordance with the circumstances and the information, we will decide … which decision should be made.”
Israeli media said the two envoys were carrying an ultimatum from Olmert to the Islamists, warning that if Hamas did not agree to a deal by Sunday night, it would have to deal with the next cabinet in Israel that is likely to be less flexible.
“If by this evening no prisoner exchange deal is signed with Hamas, the subject will pass to the responsibility and treatment of the next government,” the Maariv daily wrote.
A prisoner swap would see the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006, in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Olmert has upped efforts to secure the release of Shalit, who has become an Israeli cause celebre, before his government is replaced by that of hawk Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The message to Hamas is clear: the chances that a right-wing government led by Netanyahu will approve a deal to release hundreds of ‘heavyweight’ Palestinian prisoners in exchange for bringing Gilad home are slim,” Maariv wrote.
The interior minister in the outgoing government, Meir Sheetrit, said that “today the issue will be decided for better or for worse.”
“Over the weekend great efforts were made to reach a deal. Hamas understands that the days of this government are numbered,” he added.
“This government is ready to approve a deal, but if the government is replaced, there is no telling what will be.”
Israel is reportedly trying to get Hamas to drop the names of some prisoners responsible for attacks that killed Israelis — the release of whom is considered unacceptable to Israeli public opinion.
Olmert dispatched his special negotiator, Ofer Dekel, and the head of Israel’s internal security services, Yuval Diskin, to Cairo to make a “further effort” in the talks, his office said on Saturday.
Diskin and Dekel will “meet Egyptian officials mediating the release of Gilad Shalit and will examine if progress can be made” in the talks, it said in a statement.
Israeli officials have been warning Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Gaza Strip, to strike a deal with the Olmert government as reaching an agreement with Netanyahu may prove to be more difficult.
Netanyahu is hoping to present a government to parliament by the end of this week.