JERUSALEM (AP) 0 Israel and Hamas were close to a prisoner swap deal for a captured Israeli soldier early this year before Israel pulled out at the last moment, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told an Israeli newspaper in an interview published Friday.
The sides were about to agree on a deal that would have seen Palestinian prisoners released in return for Gilad Schalit, an Israeli tank crewman held by Hamas militants since June 2006, but then Israel “got cold feet and turned everything upside down,” Mubarak told the daily Yediot Ahronot.
Israeli government officials had no immediate comment on the report.
Mubarak said the Egyptian-mediated deal broke down “four or five months ago,” close to the end of the term of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, when Israel refused to free some of the prisoners that Hamas wanted in return for the soldier. The comments were among the strongest Mubarak has made publicly about the reasons for the failure of the prisoner swap deal.
“Suddenly you told us, ‘no, we can’t release this prisoner, but this other prisoner who doesn’t even appear on Hamas’ list, we can release him,”‘ Mubarak said. The deal was supposed to see hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including militants jailed for killing Israelis, freed in return for Schalit. Israel has refused to free some of the militants Hamas wants, saying they could return to violent activities.
Mubarak said he believes that Schalit, who remains in captivity, is in good condition. Hamas has not allowed Red Cross representatives to see the soldier.
When a deal is signed, the soldier will be moved to Egyptian custody, and then to Israel after the Palestinian prisoners are released, the Egyptian leader said.
Talks for his release have not resumed in earnest since Benjamin Netanyahu came to power as Israeli prime minister in April.
In Gaza City, Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar blamed Israel for the deadlock in the negotiations. He said Israel and Hamas agreed on 325 specific prisoners to be released, but couldn’t find common ground on the remainder; Hamas reportedly seeks the release of 450 prisoners in exchange for Schalit.
“They (Israeli negotiators) don’t want to release them. We say these must be released, since they are the core of the deal. Israel is responsible for the failure of this deal,” Zahar told reporters after Friday prayers at a Gaza mosque.