|Carter defied US warnings not to meet with the men.|
WASHINGTON - Israel would exchange as many as 400 Palestinian prisoners to secure the release of an Israeli soldier who has been held by Palestinian militants for nearly two years under a deal being negotiated with the assistance of Egyptian mediators, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said yesterday.
While the broad outlines of a possible agreement have been previously reported by anonymous sources, Aboul Gheit is the first senior official to publicly acknowledge that Israel is indirectly negotiating with Hamas, the armed Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Aboul Gheit asserted that "we're making good progress," though some sources say the talks have bogged down. Israel is trying to reduce the size of the prisoner release, and Hamas is pressing for a cease-fire that would include Gaza and the West Bank.
Aboul Gheit spoke on the same day that Jimmy Carter met in Damascus with the exiled leader of Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative election in 2006 and calls for the elimination of Israel. Carter, a former US president who brokered the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, was condemned in Israel for the meeting in the Syrian capital.
The Israeli Embassy declined to comment on Aboul Gheit's remarks, citing a policy of not speaking on negotiations involving captive soldiers. Israel has called for the unconditional release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was abducted on June 25, 2006.
Carter is the most prominent American to hold talks with Khaled Mashaal, whose Palestinian militant group claimed new legitimacy from the meeting along with two other sessions the Nobel laureate held with Hamas leaders in the Mideast this week.
A senior Hamas official in Damascus, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to represent the group publicly, described the meeting as "warm," the Associated Press reported.
But he said Carter did not receive a response to either of the two requests the former president made in the session: that Hamas halt its rocket attacks against Israel and agree to a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai of Israel to discuss a prisoner exchange.
"Political isolation [of Hamas] by the American administration has begun to crumble," Mohammed Nazzal, a top figure in Hamas's political bureau, said after yesterday's meeting with Mashaal.
Nazzal said that Gaza-based Hamas leaders would travel to Syria today to confer with Mashaal and that Carter "will be informed of Hamas's response in the coming days."
Aboul Gheit said there are three basic elements to the negotiation - an unofficial cease-fire, the exchange of prisoners, and an opening of Gaza's long-closed border crossings.
He said it would be more advantageous for peace talks if a unity government could be restored between Hamas and its rival, Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority.
In a separate development yesterday, Israel announced plans to build 100 more homes in two West Bank settlements.