Tuesday, February 24, 2009
JERUSALEM, Feb. 23 -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed Israel's top negotiator in Gaza truce talks for publicly criticizing Olmert's demand that Palestinians hand over a captured Israeli soldier before any deal is clinched, officials said Monday.
The move threatens to disrupt the talks just weeks before Olmert is succeeded by the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu, who wants the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers toppled and is considered likely to take a tougher line in the Egyptian-brokered truce negotiations.
Olmert abruptly announced last week that Israel would not reopen Gaza's long-blockaded borders -- the main Israeli concession sought by Hamas -- unless Hamas-affiliated fighters first freed Sgt. Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a June 2006 cross-border raid.
Amos Gilad, the fired negotiator, opposed linking the truce deal with Shalit and criticized Olmert's strategy in an interview last week with the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
"Due to the inappropriate public criticism leveled by Mr. Gilad, he cannot continue as the prime minister's envoy to any political negotiations," Olmert's office said in a statement.
Aides said the talks would not be affected. Longtime Olmert adviser Shalom Turgeman will replace Gilad in the truce talks, while veteran negotiator Ofer Dekel will handle efforts to free Shalit, the aides said.
Meanwhile, Israel's Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, declined an invitation by Netanyahu to join his government, dampening the hawkish leader's efforts to form a moderate coalition.
Netanyahu could piece together a coalition of right-wingers who take a hard line against territorial concessions to the Palestinians and have serious disputes among themselves on religious issues. But the Likud party leader has expressed hope he can bring moderates such as Barak and centrist leader Tzipi Livni into his coalition to win international support and a stable parliamentary majority. Livni said Sunday that she and Netanyahu were still at odds over efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.
Also Monday, a statement by the human rights group Amnesty International called on the United States to stop supplying Israel with arms that the group said were used in the killing of civilians in Gaza.
With an annual stipend of $3 billion, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid.
Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said that Israel had not officially received the report but that it appeared to be "fundamentally flawed and methodologically unsound." He said the military uses only weapons that are acceptable under international law and conventions.
The Amnesty statement also criticized Hamas for constant rocket fire on southern Israel.