Israel today ruled out any Gaza peace deal until Hamas Islamic militants release a soldier captured three years ago.
The decision was likely to set back Egyptian efforts to broker a long-term truce in the wake of Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip last month.
It came from a meeting of the security cabinet called by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss the emerging deal. Israel has been demanding an end to Hamas rocket attacks and arms smuggling, as well as the freedom of Sergeant Gilad Schalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006 and has been held in Gaza since.
Hamas wants an end to Israel’s devastating economic blockade of Gaza, including the opening of its border crossings. It says the soldier’s release should be handled separately and is demanding the freedom of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including dozens of convicted murderers, in return.
In their decision, the ministers said there could be no deal on the borders before Schalit came home.
“I don’t think we need to open the crossings until the issue of Gilad Schalit is resolved,” Mr Olmert told the cabinet.
“Three years have passed and we think we cannot come to any agreement with Hamas or Egypt without solving the issue of Gilad Schalit,” added minister Meir Sheetrit.
A government said the ministers also approved a number of prisoners that could be released in exchange for Schalit..
“Releasing Gilad Schalit will require us to pay a painful price. We will have to release terrorists, people who are guilty of very difficult crimes,” he said. “The ministers supported and understood this.”
Hamas wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for the captured soldier, including some convicted of participating in or planning some of the bloodiest Palestinian attacks against Israel.
Mr Olmert has been eager to work out a deal before he leaves office in the coming weeks. But today’s decision indicated that negotiations could stretch on for some time.
Hamas officials, both in Gaza and in the group’s exiled leadership in Syria, condemned Israel’s decision and accused it of undermining the Egyptian efforts.
Hamas is desperate to reopen the Gaza borders, and fears that negotiations over the prisoner swap could keep the crossings closed indefinitely.
As long as the borders are closed, efforts to repair the heavy damage in Gaza will remain frozen because of dire shortages of cement, glass, nails and other basic supplies. Thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, and the basic infrastructure was hit hard during the offensive.
Mr Olmert will step down after a new government is formed following last week’s parliamentary election. The results of the vote were inconclusive, and it is expected to take several weeks before either of the top two vote-getters, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, can form a new coalition government.
Israel’s ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, was set to begin several days of consultations with political parties today before designating a candidate to form a government.