BY ETHAN BRONNER
The New York Times
JERUSALEM — There were growing indications on Monday that Israel and the Islamist group Hamas were close to a deal to exchange an abducted Israeli soldier for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, a move with far-reaching implications not only for stalled Middle East peace talks but for a range of strategic regional relations.
Leaders on both sides were offering few details but a round of meetings in Cairo sponsored by the Egyptian government and a number of statements by senior officials have heightened anticipation that the swap could occur in the coming week.
“Those who don’t know can talk,” said Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence minister, on state radio on Monday. “Those who know should keep silent.”
The emerging agreement, should it be approved, would exchange Sgt. Gilad Shalit, seized by Hamas and other Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid and taken into Gaza in 2006, for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including many convicted of masterminding suicide bombings and other acts of terror.
While similar deals have occurred in the past, this one has unusual potential to lead to shifts of policy, making it the topic of anguished debate within Israel but also among Palestinians because of the deep division between Hamas and its rival, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Most Israelis have followed the fate of Sergeant Shalit, a bespectacled soldier who was last seen looking thin and wan in a video two months ago. His picture and name are ever-present and his fate is the topic of endless concern and prayer.
Yet the release of legions of violent fighters and the chance that Hamas would gain politically over the Palestinian Authority have made this a complex negotiation process for the Israelis.
“From our point of view, this will lay the ground for the next 9/11,” said Yossi Mendellevich, an engineer whose son Yuval died at the age of 13 in a bus bombing in Haifa in 2003. “We know they will not turn to macramé and painting,” he said of the security prisoners slated to be released.
“This will give the tailwind to all those in the Arab world who believe the way to defeat Israel is through terrorist activity. It will lead to the kidnapping of another soldier and to the next release and so on. What will be the end?”
Among Palestinians, the release of any of the 11,000 prisoners held by Israel would be a source of joy and national relief. But this is an especially delicate moment in Palestinian politics. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has vowed not to run again because of his frustration over Israeli and American policies. With no clear successor and a stalled process, some fear that if the prisoners are seen as gifts from Hamas, he and his party will decline in public esteem.
But Ziad Abu Ein, the Palestinian Authority’s deputy minister for prisoner affairs, played down the amount of damage that a prisoner exchange credited to Hamas could inflict on the authority and Mr. Abbas.
“This is the first time that Hamas is trying to release any prisoners,” Mr. Abu Ein said in a telephone interview on Monday. The Palestine Liberation Organization, by contrast, has released “tens of thousands” over the years, he said.
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