Prisoner negotiations a final woe for Olmert

March 18, 2009|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -The split screen seemed to capture Israel's mood of frustration over its setbacks in recent years.

On one side, television viewers saw the somber face of Ehud Olmert as he addressed them yesterday evening for perhaps the last time as prime minister. His message: Marathon efforts to win the release of a captured soldier had failed.

The other side showed the soldier's dejected parents as they listened from a tent outside Olmert's residence.

The tent had been pitched by advocates of a prisoner exchange with the soldier's Palestinian captors, amid high expectations of a deal before the Israeli leader leaves office in the coming days.

But Olmert announced that government negotiators had gone as far as they could, offering to release most, but not all, of the imprisoned militants on the captors' list.

"These proposals were rejected," he said. "No others will be offered."

Olmert's three years in office have been marked by a series of disappointments: inconclusive battles against Islamic militants in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, fruitless peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, a mounting sense of insecurity in the face of regional threats, and corruption scandals that forced the prime minister to end his term a year ahead of schedule.

But to many Israelis, his failure to bring home Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit is the most poignant disappointment of all.

Shalit's ordeal has gripped a nation where 18-year-olds are drafted into the army and the military prides itself on never abandoning its own.

The tank gunner, now 22, was seized by militants in June 2006 and spirited across the border into the Gaza Strip. Two fierce assaults in Gaza failed to free him from an incommunicado detention by the territory's Hamas rulers that has almost lasted 1,000 days.

Israelis have waged an intense debate in recent weeks over the morality of releasing prisoners responsible for suicide bombings of buses, cafes and nightclubs during a Palestinian uprising early in this decade.

The campaign for Shalit's release, joined by several Cabinet ministers, created expectations that Olmert would meet Hamas' demands and close an episode that has dogged him since the month after his election. The latest round of indirect negotiations with Hamas ended in discord Monday.

Working through Egyptian mediators in Cairo, Hamas had demanded the release of 450 prisoners convicted of having masterminded or otherwise been involved in bombings and other deadly assaults.

Israel offered to free 320 from that list, officials said, but insisted on deporting some beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. Olmert's office released the names of 10 of the prisoners Israel refused to free because of their involvement in the worst attacks.

"We have red lines," Olmert said in his televised address. "We won't cross them." Hamas rejected the offer. Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Beirut, said Israel's negotiators had pressed for its acceptance by warning that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu would be less disposed to a prisoner exchange.

But Israel's offer fell short of "the bare minimum" acceptable to Hamas, Hamdan said in a statement on the group's Web site.

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