By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
JERUSALEM, March 17 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that his government could not reach agreement with the Hamas movement on the exchange of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Olmert said that Hamas would not budge on demands that 450 Palestinian prisoners be freed in exchange for Shalit and that Israel would stick to its contention that some of the people on Hamas's list are too dangerous to free. Shalit was seized nearly three years ago in a cross-border raid near the Gaza Strip; some of the Palestinians on the list are elected members of parliament Israel detained in the hope of prompting Shalit's release.
Olmert discussed the breakdown of talks in an afternoon cabinet meeting; he later went on television to explain the situation to a public divided between sympathy for Shalit and concern over releasing Palestinians convicted of committing violent acts against Israelis.
"I approved these offers, the practical meaning of which was the release of many hundreds of terrorists, including murderers of Israeli citizens, for the possibility of returning Gilad. These offers were rejected. Others will not be delivered to the Hamas," Olmert said in the address.
In an unusual step, Olmert's office released the names of some of the Palestinians under discussion in its Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas, illustrating the demands faced by his negotiating team. Shalit's release has become an emotionally charged issue, with his parents protesting in a tent outside Olmert's residence for the past week.
One person on the list of prisoners Israel refuses to release, Abdullah Barghouti, is described as a "professional authority" in explosives and a ranking Hamas military official. He was sentenced to 67 life terms for preparing devices used in a number of attacks, including the 2001 bombing of a pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem that killed 15 people. Another, Hassan Salameh, is serving 48 life sentences for his role in planning attacks, including a 1996 bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 26 people.
"We have red lines. We don't cross them," Olmert said.
A senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that at the point discussions deadlocked over the weekend, Israel had agreed to release 320 of the 450 prisoners sought by Hamas and that different proposals -- such as deporting some prisoners to other countries or finding other detainees to release -- had failed to produce agreement. It is not known whether some high-profile Palestinian political figures, such as Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, were among those Israel was prepared to free. His name was not on the list Israel released.
Hamas officials could not be reached for comment but have said throughout the negotiations in recent days that they would stick to their list of names.
Barring a last-minute breakthrough in the waning days of Olmert's government, the issue will fall to incoming Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to resolve.
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.