Israel close to prisoner swap

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held marathon talks with cabinet ministers yesterday but without any announcement for a prisoner swap with Gaza's Hamas rulers to secure the release of a captured soldier.

A terse statement issued by Netanyahu's office, saying only that the Israeli leader instructed his negotiating team to continue efforts to bring home 23-year-old soldier Gilad Shalit, appeared to indicate that Israel had yet to accept Hamas's terms for an exchange.

The statement did not say whether Netanyahu would meet again with his ministers today.

Noam Shalit, whose son Gilad has been held by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip since 2006, told reporters after meeting Netanyahu a final decision on a deal was likely some time today.

Egypt and Germany have been mediating the prisoner exchange, which officials have said would set Shalit free in return for about 1,000 Palestinians of the 11,000 held in Israeli jails.

Hamas has demanded senior militants, responsible for attacks that killed dozens of Israelis, be released. Shalit's parents have intensified a public campaign to carry out such a trade, arguing the alternative would be their son's death.

"I'm still not optimistic, but I'm also not pessimistic," Noam Shalit said after Netanyahu, taking a break from ministerial consultations that began on Sunday, briefed him.

The soldier's mother and siblings were also among a crowd of demonstrators outside Netanyahu's office demanding a decision to go ahead with an exchange. They placed cardboard cut-outs of Shalit at the site.