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Olmert, in His Final Days in Office, Faces Key Choice on Captive Israeli

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 14, 2009

JERUSALEM, March 13 -- It has been nearly three years since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured near the Gaza Strip in a cross-border raid by Palestinian gunmen, and the issue has dogged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ever since.

Two rounds of intense Israeli military action in Gaza did not free the fresh-faced conscript, now 22. Neither has Israel's imprisonment of dozens of members of the Palestinian parliament who belong to Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls the strip and Shalit's fate.

Now, in the waning days of Olmert's government, and with public pressure building for a deal to free Shalit, the prime minister faces the prospect of paying a price he long resisted -- releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners demanded by Hamas, among them fighters and others jailed for violent acts against Israelis. Hamas is demanding the freedom of Marwan Barghouti, a top Palestinian leader whom Israelis regard as a key instigator in the violent uprising, or intifada, that broke out in 2000, but who may also be important in efforts to pull together the divided Palestinian government.

In weighing whether to make a deal that will free Shalit, analysts said, Olmert is balancing his desire to free the young Israeli against other issues: whether the release of Barghouti and some other ranking Palestinian leaders will help advance stalled peace talks -- or simply give Hamas a public relations coup.

Barghouti, jailed since 2002, is serving multiple life terms for his conviction on charges that he caused the deaths of Israelis during the intifada. Although Barghouti is a member of Fatah, a rival faction that dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, Hamas officials say they are pushing for his release as a potentially unifying figure.

"We don't look to him as a competitor; we look at him as a Palestinian nationalist," said Ahmed Youssef, a top Hamas adviser. "It doesn't matter if he is from Hamas or from Fatah."

Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, but after a power-sharing deal broke down in 2007, Hamas routed Fatah's forces in Gaza and took control of the territory. Palestinian factions are holding talks in Cairo on possibly forming a unity government.

Olmert's office would not comment publicly on the details of negotiations on a possible prisoner swap, citing their sensitivity. A senior Israeli official said that "if there is a deal to release Gilad Shalit, there would be an interest on the Israeli side that those on the Palestinian side who believe in peace and reconciliation could be compensated," so that Hamas would not be the only beneficiary. Hamas rejects Israel's existence, but Fatah supports a negotiated peace with Israel that would result in a Palestinian state.

Over more than 20 years -- since the 1985 swap of three Israeli soldiers for more than 1,100 Palestinian prisoners, including top Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub -- prisoner exchanges have been a recurring feature of Israel's dealings with groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

The terms have reflected the nature of the conflict. With thousands of Palestinians jailed at any given time, and Israeli captives and casualties rare in comparison, past exchanges have involved the release of hundreds of Palestinian or other Arab prisoners in return for a few Israeli soldiers or their mortal remains.

The fact that Shalit is believed to be alive -- an audiotape of him was aired on local television a year after his capture -- has added urgency to the talks and currency to the possibility that some high-level prisoners such as Barghouti may be included in a swap.

"Barghouti becomes important during the negotiations," said Matti Steinberg, a Hebrew University professor and former adviser to Israel's internal security services. "The problem is more than Gilad Shalit himself."

With Olmert's government in perhaps its final week, the public soul-searching is underway. Many Israelis want to see Shalit united with his family, but they also worry that one of those released might commit an act of violence against Israelis or that an exchange will encourage more captures and abductions.

Shortly after Shalit was taken in June 2006, Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a raid across the Lebanese border. Intense military action followed in both instances -- a brief war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and an incursion into Gaza in search of Shalit -- but it failed to free the captured men.

The remains of the two soldiers held by Hezbollah were exchanged last summer for five Lebanese prisoners. Though the terms for Shalit's release would almost certainly be dearer, supporters at a protest tent outside Olmert's house said it is a price the country needs to pay -- and soon. They consider a deal in the waning days of the current administration their best hope. The incoming government of Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, Shalit's parents and others said, is unlikely to make the issue an early priority.

"We need" Olmert to resolve this, said Noam Shalit, the captured soldier's father. "It may be the last, last chance for Gilad to be set free."

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