BY AVI ISSACHAROFF and BARAK RAVID
During their meeting in Paris last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he should seek the assistance of Syria and Qatar to speed up the talks for releasing abducted soldier Gilad Shalit.
Sarkozy said France could ask the leaders of the two Arab countries to seek Hamas’ consent for either a sign of life from Shalit or permission for a visit by the Red Cross.
Sarkozy also told Netanyahu that during the Olmert administration he had contributed to exchanges on the Shalit affair through his ties with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa. Both leaders have regular contact with Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal, who is based in Damascus.
Sarkozy also told Netanyahu that the release of Shalit, who has been held in Gaza for three years now, is “key to a change in the situation in the area.” But Sarkozy also stressed that “you will have to release prisoners, otherwise there will be no deal.”
Meanwhile, at the cabinet meeting Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak refuted reports of a breakthrough in the negotiations to bring Shalit home.
“Not a day goes by that we do not think of Gilad Shalit,” he said. “Not a day goes by that the best minds in the country are not working on the issue.
“The reports are not correct and they may even be damaging, and in this matter the less we talk and the more we focus on doing, the better.”
Hamas also issued an official statement denying any progress on Shalit. The Hamas official assigned to the Shalit case, Osama al-Muzaini, said there had been no progress on the matter since Netanyahu assumed office.
Muzaini said no new Israeli offer on Shalit had been received, though the soldier was alive and had received the letter sent to him by his family through former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
Regarding the negotiations, Muzaini said the latest Israeli offer had been for the release of 325 prisoners out of a list of 450 demanded by Hamas. However, he said Israel demanded that 125 of the 325 prisoners would be exiled from the West Bank.
Muzaini said that many of the prisoners had been imprisoned for life, and that Israel had offered to release 550 others who had been jailed for five to seven years. Their terms would be completed soon.
Unlike his predecessors, the newly appointed Israeli negotiator to win Shalit’s release, Hagai Hadas, is employed as an external consultant and is being paid by the Prime Minister’s Office, Channel 10 reported yesterday.
The contract for his employment is for a year, starting this month. The total remuneration stands at NIS 22,684 per year.
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