JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli prisoner exchange with Hamas has not yet been agreed and might not happen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday after a cabinet colleague predicted a breakthrough in the near future.
“There is still no deal, and I do not know if there will be one,” Netanyahu, whose refusal to disclose details of the state of the Egyptian- and German-mediated negotiations has helped stoked speculation about imminent progress, told reporters.
Leaders of Hamas, the Islamist group ruling the Gaza Strip, were in Cairo to discuss the proposed swap of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for hundreds of jailed Palestinians.
Officials close to the talks said on Monday that Israel had dropped its objections to some 160 prisoners that Hamas wants included on the release roster. But both sides have demurred at anticipation, disseminated by Arab media, of an exchange being in place as soon as Friday, the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha.
Israel had long balked at granting amnesty to Palestinians jailed for attacks that killed its citizens. While signaling flexibility in its bid to recover Shalit, the Israeli government is wary of a domestic backlash over a deal that bolsters Hamas.
“Should there be such (a swap) we will not be sparing with a public discussion. We will not do it as a fait accompli. We will allow the cabinet ministers, and the public in general, to discuss the issue,” Netanyahu said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who is not a member of the Israeli security cabinet deliberating the prisoner swap, said a deal was “moving toward completion in the very near future.”
Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio, Ben-Eliezer said he had yet to see a list of Palestinian prisoners slated for amnesty but that he nonetheless envisaged broad-based support for freeing some military chiefs from Hamas and other anti-Israel factions.
“Obviously there will be names of heavy-duty murderers. The government will decide, and I hope the decision will be positive,” he said.
Shalit was seized by Hamas-led gunmen in a 2006 raid across the Gaza border, and his return is a cause celebre in Israel.
The release of prisoners is no less emotive for Palestinians, who see their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as national heroes.
Hamas accused Israel of stirring up speculation about an imminent deal in a bid to generate Palestinian popular pressure on the Islamist movement to speed up a deal.
Netanyahu said on Monday that there was no deal in place and that Israel awaited “clarification” of the latest Hamas demands.
Hamas said it was premature to expect imminent agreement and blamed Israel for any hold-ups. Hamas did not elaborate on this.
“We in Hamas are continuing our efforts, through the parties involved in the swap file, to overcome the obstacles placed by the Israeli enemy,” it said in a statement issued in Gaza.
Israel, having invoked stringent censorship on its own press to contain reports on the negotiations, has accused Hamas of deceptive media leaks. Hamas last month accelerated the talks by publishing a “proof of life” video of 23-year-old Shalit.