JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a parliamentary committee Wednesday the list of prisoners the Palestinians want freed in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier "creates expectations we cannot meet," a meeting participant said.
Olmert also told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel had no plans to attack Syria, and that the operating hours at the Gaza Strip's only cargo crossing had been significantly expanded — a confidence-building measure intended to improve the peacemaking climate.
The list of prisoners the Palestinians want freed has not been made public, but various media reports have put the number between 350 and 1,400, including militants convicted of involvement in fatal attacks on Israelis.
Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 20, was captured in June by Hamas-linked militants, and his continued detention has been a major impediment to peacemaking efforts. Shalit has not been seen or heard from since his capture, although Israel believes he is alive and being held in the Gaza Strip.
Olmert has not said how many Palestinians Israel would be willing to free in exchange for Shalit. In a television interview this week, he hinted he would release a large number, but said it would not be 1,400.
Israel has said it will not release prisoners involved in deadly attacks, but it has done so in the past. The list presented to Israel, compiled by militants holding Shalit and sent through mediators, includes prisoners who fit that profile.
Shortly after receiving the list earlier this month, Olmert called it "disappointing." On Wednesday, he reiterated that assessment in his parliamentary appearance, a participant in the meeting said.
The list is "disappointing and creates expectations that we have no chance of meeting," the participant quoted the prime minister as saying. The participant, an official close to Olmert, spoke on condition of anonymity because the proceedings were closed.
Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti accused Olmert of dragging his feet in responding to the militants' demands.
"Olmert is weak and incapable of making decisions," he said Wednesday. "Now he is complaining about the list. He has to give an answer ... He is maneuvering on every issue and not responding on any issue."
Israel is holding about 11,050 Palestinian prisoners, according to the army. About 5,900 people have been convicted of security offenses and 2,233 have not yet been tried. An additional 800 people are being held without charge, according to the army.
The prospect of releasing Palestinians convicted of violence has evoked a wide range of reactions among victims' families in Israel. Several have told Israeli media they approve of a swap to end the suffering of Shalit's family, but others are adamantly opposed.
Although Shalit's captivity has hindered attempts to get peace talks rolling again, Israel has promised to ease restrictions on the Palestinians in an effort to lessen tensions.
On Wednesday, Olmert and Palestinian officials both said operations at the vital Karni cargo crossing had been extended by at least five hours a day for a trial period — something that could boost the battered Gaza economy.
Israel has frequently closed the passage over the past year, citing security concerns. Palestinians say the frequent closures, which have taken a heavy toll on the Gaza economy, are punishment for the victory of the Hamas militant group in Palestinian elections last year and Shalit's capture.
In other regional developments, Olmert reiterated to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel had no plans to launch a military strike against Syria, the meeting participant said — an apparent attempt to ease fears in Damascus.
"We have no intention of attacking Syria," the participant cited the prime minister as saying.
Olmert said Israeli intelligence officials think Syria has recently redeployed troops fearing that Israel is planning an attack — and not because it is preparing to launch a war, the meeting participant said.
Syria has expressed interest in renewing peace talks with Israel, but Olmert has rejected the overtures, saying Damascus must first end its support for Lebanese and Palestinian militants who attack Israel.
The latest round of peace talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000.