Netanyahu accused over stalled talks to free Shalit

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The Independent Online

The family of Gilad Shalit, the soldier seized by Gaza militants in 2006, sharply criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday for not securing his release despite the disclosure that a German mediator had renewed contact with both sides.

Amid some confusion over the status of current negotiations, Hamas and Mr Netanyahu separately confirmed that the senior German official charged with mediating a prisoner exchange had recently been in touch with both Israel's government and the Islamic faction. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday that Israel was "continuously working on the [Shalit] issue in a number of ways".

But Zvi Shalit, grandfather of the captive soldier, challenged the latter remark, saying he had "no idea" why Mr Netanyahu had made it "since it isn't true". Mr Shalit added on Army Radio: "The Prime Minister, by not bringing about his release, is killing him. It's getting worse every day."

Referring to Hamas's demand for the release of 450 prisoners in return for his grandson, Mr Shalit appeared to reject the need for further talks. "I don't understand why the Prime Minister doesn't make the phone call that would bring Gilad back home," he said. "Hamas has a very defined demand, one which didn't change over the years. The list is known."

Mr Netanyahu's office later released a statement in response to Mr Shalit's remarks, saying the Prime Minister was "working determinedly toward bringing Gilad back home" and that efforts to secure his release were "ongoing".

The latest exchanges followed a report in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat quoting Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, as saying that talks over a deal for the release of the Israeli soldier had resumed. He said the German official, Gerhard Konrad, had visited Gaza for talks with Hamas figures but that negotiations were frozen.

After initial indications of surprise among some senior Hamas political officials in Gaza, the faction's official website carried a statement by Osama Hamdan, its senior official in Beirut, confirming that the German mediator had visited Gaza and Tel Aviv but adding that there was no basis for claiming progress in the talks. "Israelis know Netanyahu is the reason for obstacles to the deal," the statement added.

Hamas has accused the Israeli premier of reneging on an earlier agreement in principle that 325 named prisoners should be released, followed by another 125 to be nominated by the faction and then approved by Israel. Sgt Shalit's family has repeatedly complained that Hamas has not allowed visits to him by the International Red Cross.

The move came amid continued and wholly separate diplomatic efforts to relaunch direct talks between Mr Netanyahu and the moderate Ramallah-based leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Efforts are focusing on a possible US agreement with Israel for restoration of the moratorium on the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Mr Abbas says is necessary for such a resumption.

* The UK film director Mike Leigh has cancelled a planned visit to Israel and the West Bank in protest at Cabinet backing for a proposed legal requirement on newly naturalised non-Jews to pledge loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish state", Haaretz reported last night. Mr Leigh, who is Jewish, was to have given a masterclass at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem on what would have been his first visit since 1990.

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