A marathon meeting of the Israeli cabinet to discuss a possible exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier held in the Gaza Strip, has ended without agreement.
The meetings at the office of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, ended early on Tuesday, with the seven members of Israel’s security cabinet apparently still deadlocked over the conditions for Gilad Shalit’s release.
The 23-year-old Israeli soldier was captured in a cross-border raid on an army post by Palestinian fighters in June 2006 and has been held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip ever since.
Under the terms called for by Hamas, Shalit would be released in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Some ministers are reportedly opposed to freeing Palestinians convicted of carrying out fatal attacks in Israel.
‘Make or Break’
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from Jerusalem, said the Israeli cabinet had held five rounds of often tense talks over the past 48 hours, in what had been billed as "make or break" time for the deal.
But instead the cabinet released a statement early on Tuesday instructing the team negotiating Shalit’s release to continue their efforts to secure his return.
The statement essentially means that no decision was reached, our correspondent said.
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and now head of a US-based think-tank, said it was unclear whether the apparent deadlock in the Israeli cabinet was a case of brinkmanship or a rejection of the deal, or a calculated decision to postpone and drag out making a decision.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from New York, he said the Israeli public would most likely support a deal, "but the real question is whether Mr Netanyahu is up for making a decision".
The issue of Shalit’s detention had become a significant factor in the Israeli psyche, Levy said, reviving what he called the "national trauma" over Ron Arad, the now apparently deceased Israeli pilot captured during the Lebanon war.
Call for Decision
Between the meetings, Netanyahu met Shalit’s parents, who earlier made an impassioned plea for ministers to agree to a swap.
"I hope that they will decide today," Aviva Shalit, the soldier’s mother had said. "And that each minister knows that his decision will decide whether Gilad lives or dies."
Following the meeting with the prime minister, Noam Shalit, the soldier’s father, said: "I am not pessimistic but nor am I optimistic."
At a protest outside the prime minister’s official residence, dozens of demonstrators carried cardboard cutouts of Shalit and urged the cabinet ministers to wrap up an agreement.
If approved, the exchange would be subject to a 48-hour period for opponents to file legal challenges.
There was no immediate comment on a potential exchange from Hamas officials, but there has been increasing anticipation of a deal being reached in recent weeks.
Intermittent negotiations between Israel and Hamas have been conducted indirectly, mainly through Egypt, since Shalit was seized by fighters from Hamas and allied groups.
On Sunday, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief, held the latest in a series of talks with senior officials in Israel.
Germany, which has a history of organising successful prisoner exchange between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has also been involved in mediating in recent months.
Israel has, so far, been reluctant to meet Hamas’s demand for the release of dozens of Palestinians convicted of carrying out deadly attacks on Israelis.
It also wants Hamas to agree to some of the prisoners being deported to areas other than the West Bank to prevent them from joining groups of Palestinian fighters in the future.
Netanyahu is said to be facing pressure from the families of Israelis killed by Palestinian fighters now being held in Israeli jail not to agree to their release.
According to Israeli media, the Israeli prime minister favours a plan that would see the prisoners sent instead to the Gaza Strip or into exile in foreign countries.
The Associated Press news agency quoted a Palestinian source as saying that the Palestinian prisoners would be released in two stages.
A first group of 450 are to be freed as Shalit is handed over to the Egyptians, and then returned to Israel. The remainder would be released weeks or even months later.
More than 10,000 Palestinians are currently being held in Israeli jails.
In October, Israel freed about 20 Palestinian women prisoners in exchange for a video showing Shalit in captivity.
The video showed Shalit alive and moving – the first proof of his well-being since he was captured.