It is not really clear — at least not to me — what Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is up to.

Yesterday, at a meeting he convened of Israel’s “security cabinet”, he got agreement to put at the top of the Israeli government’s priorities the release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid in June 2006 and is believed to be held, still, somewhere in Gaza.

Hamas has said over and over again that Shalit will be released only if Israel frees many of those on a list of about 1400 Palestinian prisoners Hamas has specified. It was recently reported (just around the time of the cease-fires after the recent 22-day IDF military operation in Gaza), that Israel might be ready to free about 1000 Palestinians — the most generous offer to date.

But, Hamas has always insisted not just on quantity, but on its own specifically-named choices.

On Wednesday, Olmert apparently blithely ignored this fact — and got the security cabinet to approve his own list.

It’s not clear, because the list has not been published. But it may — or, more likely, may not — correspond to the list of names Hamas has given.

According to an intriguing report published in the Jerusalem Post, Olmert said today (Thursday): “We transferred a list of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who were not included in the original list … We have approved many names and progress in the talks was registered.”

The JPost describes this as a “new list”.

What kind of negotiating is this? Does Olmert seriously think he can make Hamas accept anything?

The JPost reported that Olmert said: “We embarked on a war on Hamas and we crushed them … The sole intention of the Gaza campaign was to change the reality versus Hamas and bring quiet to the South… The cabinet decision of yesterday lays down the groundwork and the priorities”…

The Defense Ministry’s Amos Gilad, who has been shuttling between Cairo, Tel Aviv (where the Ministry of Defense is located), and Jerusalem (where most of the rest of Israel’s government is based), said yesterday that all this has raised his blood pressure. He said that everything he had done so far was cleared with Olmert, so why the change?

Amos Gilad, and Israel’s Defense Minister himself (and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, were both called on the carpet by PM Olmert, before yesterday’s security cabinet meeting, and reprimanded for their reported remarks.

Defense Ministry officials are still, however, confiding in their favorite journalists that their objections are intact — and they say that Olmert’s actions have put Gilad Shalit himself in danger.

The Egyptians, who have been functioning as the social director of this cruise ship, were reportedly surprised and offended. Hamas is controlling its anger. It doesn’t appear to have a large margin of maneuver — and apparently does not want to appear to be a bunch of undisciplined and reckless negotiators.

The JPost said — surprisingly — that Israel had “no interest in reaching any formal agreement with the organization on any other matter. ‘They [Hamas] say they are willing to discuss a yearlong cease fire, not an 18-month one, they are talking to themselves’, the [unnamed senior government] official said. ‘As the statement reads, Israel will not negotiate with Hamas or any other terrorist organization over a cease-fire’.”

All this talk about Shalit, therefore, appears to be a cover for the refusal of the “caretaker” Israeli government that will be led by Olmert [until a new government is formed, which could be weeks away, in the wake of the close general elections held on 10 February] to conclude a cease-fire agreement with Hamas.

The JPost reported that “After a four-hour meeting of the 11-member security cabinet [on Wednesday, yesterday], the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying the body had agreed that security prisoners would be released for Schalit, but had not specified who or how many. Those issues, according to the statement, would be dealt with at a latter time by the relevant authorities”. This JPost article can be read in full here.

So, this appears to be a separate matter.

And, the sequence preferred by Israel appears to be this: Shalit must be released, first. Then, the Palestinian prisoners [that Israel has named on its new list] will be released. After that, the border crossings will be opened — or maybe just partly opened, apparently according to what the Israel government decides.

A cease-fire is nowhere in the scenario, according to this report. At least, not with Hamas. What we will be left with is a continuation of the situation that existed prior to the three-week IDF Operation Cast Lead: Israel will not fire unless there are attacks coming from Gaza.

Is Olmert waiting for Palestinian reconciliation talks to succeed? This seems unlikely, because it appears that the Israeli government would be equally unwilling to conclude a truce with a Palestinian “National Unity” government that would have any Hamas participation — unless, of course, Hamas “changes its stripes”, as Americans used to say.

In the recent Egyptian-brokered talks with the Palestinian factions that were to have met in Cairo on 22 February, what has been in the works, reportedly, is a government of the factions, including Hamas — not a “neutral” government of non-politician technocrats and technicians that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad used to talk about.

Olmert seems to want to deal only with the Palestinian Authority that is currently led by Ramallah-based Mahmoud Abbas, or a similar successor. But, Olmert appears to feel that he doesn’t even need to deal. He can just decide himself.

Olmert may also be trying to put the pressure on his own Israeli political rivals. For him, this makes a really good political 6game.

But it is a very poor situation for the Palestinians — both in the West Bank, and in Gaza — and it is very dangerous.

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