Captured Soldier Moves to Top of Israel’s Priority List
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, supported by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at the weekend made the release of Gilad Shalit Jerusalem’s top priority in any ceasefire agreement formalizing the suspension of hostilities after Israel’s 22-day war against Hamas.
The Islamist group, prodded by mediator Egypt, is believed to be keen to secure an agreement and an end to Israel’s security blockade before a new and likely more right-leaning Israeli government emerges from coalition negotiations in the weeks ahead. From Israel’s point of view this may well be the best opportunity in a long time to secure Shalit’s freedom.
A statement from Olmert’s spokesman said freedom for Shalit and “security of residents in the south” – a reference to the aim of stopping rocket attacks from Gaza – were Israel’s primary goals. “Prime Minister Olmert’s position is that Israel will not reach understandings on a lull before Gilad Shalit’s release.”
Olmert reiterated the stance while addressing visiting American Jewish leaders. “Above everything, we want to see Shalit back home,” he told them Sunday. “We’ll look at the rest afterwards.”
Shalit, now 22, was abducted by Palestinian gunmen during a raid across the Gaza-Israel frontier that cost the lives of two other Israeli soldiers. Hamas has held him ever since, demanding the release of hundreds of prisoners in exchange for his freedom.
Israel has historically been willing to swap large numbers of prisoners for soldiers captured by its Arab enemies, and for the remains of those who went missing in action. Among the terrorists Hamas wants released in exchange for Shalit is the convicted mastermind of a 2002 suicide bombing of a Passover seder in Netanya, which killed 30 people.
Up to now, Hamas officials have insisted that negotiations on a ceasefire and those on Shalit be kept separate.
Israel’s elections last week left the country in limbo: Livni’s Kadima party narrowly beat Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but with right-wing parties holding a majority of parliamentary seats it remains to be seen which combination of parties will eventually make up the next government.
The Likud and smaller parties on the right have vowed to take a tougher stance against Hamas.
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