Eleventh-hour talks on an Israel-Hamas prisoner swap appeared to collapse today as both sides accused each other of about-turns and bad faith in their Egyptian-brokered efforts. The crunch negotiations had hoped to secure the release of an Israeli soldier, Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit, seized by Gaza militants in June 2006, in exchange for the freeing of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. For the Israeli side, the talks have gained urgency over past weeks as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hopes to strike a deal before he steps down and hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu - whose cabinet is likely to assume a take hardline stand - takes over.
But today, Mr Olmert accused the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers of hardening their position. "It became clear during the discussions that Hamas had hardened its position, reneged on understandings that had been formulated over the past year and raised extreme demands," Mr Olmert's office said after two envoys returned from talks in Cairo. The Islamists' stand comes "despite the generous proposals that had been raised in this round in order to advance and exhaust the negotiations and bring about the soldier's release," it said.
The Israeli cabinet was to convene later today to hear the two envoys' report, with military chief of staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi cutting short a trip to the United States to attend. Hamas meanwhile furiously rejected the Israeli accusations, saying the envoys in their two days of intensive talks had offered nothing new and had made no serious offer. "As soon as there is a serious offer from Israel, we will deal with it," Ossama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Beirut, said in a statement published on the Islamists' website.
"Israel thinks that Hamas will accept less than the bare minimum under pressure that the next Israeli government, risks being less disposed to proceed with an exchange." The Israeli media has speculated that the Islamists have hardened their position aiming to capitalise on Mr Olmert's wish to have Sgt Shalit freed before he leaves office and on the pressure that the serviceman's family has sought to pile on the outgoing government.
With their son's captivity approaching the 1,000-day mark on Saturday, the Shalits have moved into a protest tent outside Mr Olmert's residence in Jerusalem. The spot has become a sort of pilgrimage site for politicians aiming to express support for the freeing of the soldier whose fate has become a national cause celebre. Sgt Shalit was captured in a deadly cross-border raid at the very start of Mr Olmert's premiership.
Eager to close the file before he leaves office, the prime minister dispatched aide Ofer Dekel and internal security chief Yuval Diskin to Cairo to try to nail down a deal with Hamas. The two were reportedly given wide latitude in the talks, including agreeing to release some prisoners who had been involved in attacks that had killed Israelis - something that the Jewish state normally refuses to do.
The two main disputes in the talks were how many "hardcore" prisoners would be released for Sgt Shalit and how many of them would be banned from returning to their homes in the occupied West Bank, according to Israeli media. *AFP