Aviva Shalit, with picture of her son Gilad
Aviva Shalit, with picture of her son Gilad Israel News Photo-Flash 90

Next week's election is pressuring the government to bring home kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, nearly 1,000 days after he was kidnapped. Kadima and Labor have a wary eye on the polls, and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to leave office with a major accomplishment.

Hamas, having suffered a severe setback militarily and politically in Operation Cast Lead and facing heavy pressure from Egypt, said it is prepared to close a deal, according to Arab media. Egyptian officials, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who are trying to separate Hamas from Iran, are working nearly around-the-clock to mediate between Hamas and Israel over a new ceasefire that may be announced as soon as Friday, with a deal for Shalit in the offing.

Hamas leader Salah Bardawil has been told to reply by Wednesday evening to the ceasefire arrangement. 

The Israeli government has admitted that it will have to pay a heavy price for Shalit, although critics have said that it missed a golden opportunity to insist that the soldier leave Gaza with the rest of the IDF at the end of Operation Cast Lead.

The Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds in Jerusalem reported that the Olmert administration is prepared to release Marwan Barghouti, serving five life terms in prison for involvement in deadly terrorist attacks, in exchange for Shalit. The soldier is thought to be alive and well.

Lebanon-based Hamas official Ahmed Abdel-Hadi said, "There is an agreement in principle about a calm for one year … if there are guarantees and commitments to lift the sanctions and open the borders," he told Al Quds radio in Gaza. Although he rejected linking a ceasefire with releasing Shalit, Israel government officials are anxious to fulfill promises made almost 1,000 days ago to bring him home.

Prime Minister Olmert, who has been stained by several criminal probes and faces possible trials, previously said that he would not return to the negotiating table with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas before Shalit was returned.

Both he and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor party, have made countless commitments to bring Shalit home. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who succeeded Olmert as leader of the Kadima party, has been campaigning with the promise that she also has made the soldier's return as a high priority issue. On the other hand, agreeing to release Barghouti and other terrorists or announcing a new ceasefire without Shalit's return would give opposition parties ammuniton to use against Kadima and Labor.

Opening the Gaza crossings, including the international border at Rafiah, is a basis for a truce, but Israel and Hamas have stated contradictory positions on conditions. Prime Minister Olmert maintains that previous agreements with Hamas state that the Rafiah crossing will be opened only after Shalit is freed. Hamas claims that his release is conditioned on Israel's releasing more than 1,000 terrorists and other Palestinian Authority Arab prisoners.

The Bethlehem-based Ma'an news agency reported Tuesday that Hamas leader Bardawil said Israel has agreed in principle "to allow 75 percent of the goods currently banned from entering Gaza in exchange for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The remaining 25 percent are goods Israel says could be used to make weapons."

However, he insisted that smuggling of weapons into Gaza is not a negotiable issue for Hamas because "that would mean the end of resistance." He added that it is up to Egypt and not Hamas to try to stop smugglers from using tunnels under the border to import weapons for the terrorist party.

The saga of Shalit's plight began on June 25, 2006, when Hamas and allied terrorists staged a raid on a Gaza crossing, killing two soldiers and kidnapping Shalit. The attack was followed less than three weeks later with a carbon copy operation on the northern border, where Hizbullah terrorists kidnapped IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Their bodies were returned last summer.