JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is to convene his security cabinet on Wednesday to consider swapping Palestinian prisoners for a captured Israeli soldier as part of a ceasefire deal with Hamas.
Olmert is mounting a last-ditch effort to free the soldier before leaving office. He has refused to accept an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire until Hamas releases Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the security cabinet would on Wednesday discuss and possibly “authorize the parameters of” a deal that includes Shalit. Another official said ministers were “discussing and debating” which prisoners sought by Hamas would be freed.
Olmert’s office quoted him as telling a visiting U.S. congressional delegation that he would bring to the security cabinet on Wednesday a proposal that “aims to advance the release of … Shalit,” as well as a broader truce in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk told Al Jazeera Television from Cairo: “We are ready … to open the file of Gilad Shalit for negotiation.”
“If they want him back at home as they say, they have to let the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons go home too.”
But another Hamas official, Taher al-Nono, said “a clear agreement” on a Gaza ceasefire had been reached before Olmert, over the weekend, insisted on Shalit being freed first.
Israel believes last month’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip increased its leverage over Hamas to free Shalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid by Gaza militants in 2006.
The air, sea and land bombardment, which Israel launched with the declared aim of halting rocket attacks, killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, destroyed some 5,000 homes and decimated much of Gaza’s infrastructure, local officials say.
If Gazans want to rebuild, they will need Israel and Egypt to open border crossings fully, something Olmert has vowed not to do until Shalit returns.
Hamas has demanded the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Israel has repeatedly recovered both captured hostages and remains of slain soldiers from its conscript army through massively lopsided swaps. Israel believes Shalit is alive.
Western diplomats said Olmert was likely to free closer to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the soldier, including some Hamas militants involved in deadly attacks against Israelis.
Israel is also considering freeing Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi to bolster Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction, Hamas’s main rival.
“We are thinking about these issues,” a third Israeli official said.
Barghouthi’s release might help Fatah but could speed the departure of Abbas, who has sent mixed messages about whether he wants to run again, Western diplomats said. Hamas says it no longer recognizes Abbas as president because his term expired last month.
Israel is also considering giving Abbas’s security forces greater authority in some parts of the occupied West Bank, where his government is based.
Last week’s inconclusive election in Israel has triggered what may be a protracted battle over who will form the next government, giving Olmert a few weeks to maneuver.
Israel believes that Hamas wants to close the deal before a more hardline government, possibly led by rightist Benjamin Netanyahu, takes office.
“Timing is a factor here because Olmert wants to leave behind a clean slate and Netanyahu has an interest in taking office without the Shalit case hanging over him,” a senior Israeli official said.