Tuesday night, Oct. 18, when the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was finally home with his family, the State Department spokesman Mark Toner disclosed that the United States had voiced concerns to Israel over some of the 477 Palestinians freed as part of a deal for his release. "We have looked at some of these individuals and we've communicated our position… to the Israeli government," he said, adding he could not "get into the substance of our concerns too greatly."
He did not reveal how Israel had reacted to the American message or to what threat he referred. Toner added he was not aware of any Palestinians not freed because of US concerns and stressed that the Israeli government had "made a sovereign decision."
Tuesday, Israel freed 477 Palestinian terrorists, including 230 multiple murderers serving several life sentences, the first batch of 1,027, Hamas' price for buying the release of Gilad Shalit after holding him captive for five years and four months from the day of his kidnap in a cross-border raid from Gaza.
The White House response to the successful prisoner exchange with Hamas was also cool, although several Western leaders sent messages of congratulations.
debkafile's Washington sources report that the Obama administration had made it clear to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of the exchange that it objected to the scale of the deal with Hamas which is listed as a terrorist organization in the US.
Certain names of terrorists were marked as posing danger if freed not only to Israel but also to US interests in the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestinian peace track.
Although this was not said specifically, the White House viewed the prisoner swap deal as a major setback for Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, at a time when Washington is trying hard to bring him to the negotiating table.
Indeed, two US officials are due Wednesday, Oct. 19, in Jerusalem and Ramallah to once again look into the prospects of restarting the talks.
Referring to the optimist view expressed widely in Western capitals that the prisoner swap would enhance the chances of resuming peace talks, the State Department spokesman said it was "difficult for us to say what this means."
A major US objection applied to the inclusion of terrorists who had murdered Israelis of American nationality on the list of Palestinians freed. The Netanyahu government would have been expected to at least consult with Washington before going through with the deal.
This was one of the rare occasions, debkafile's sources comment, in which the Netanyahu government refrained from conferring with the United States on a matter involving the war on terror.
The White House spokesman Jay Carney commented only: "We are pleased that Gilad Shalit is being reunited with his family."
Israeli opinion on the deal is divided.
A poll conducted by Maagar Mochot the day before the prisoner swap showed 88% of the Israelis sampled approving of the prime minister's decision to hand over 1,027 terrorists to recover Gilad Shallit, while 63 percent considered the price excessive. Asked if the deal would lead to more abductions of Israelis by Palestinian terrorists, 82 percent thought it would.
Almost 69 percent approved of direct dialogue with Hamas, while 70 percent favored the death sentence for exceptionally brutal multiple murderers.
Interestingly, only 36 percent believed the deal had added to Netanyahu's popularity while 57 percent thought his public position was unchanged. More than half – 64 percent – criticized the media for exerting undue pressure for pushing the deal through.