A 2005 photo shows Amos Gilad, a senior defense official who was Israel's top negotiator on Gaza truce talks.
Israeli negotiator fired for criticizing Olmert
Opposed tying truce to soldier
JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed Israel's top negotiator in Gaza truce talks for publicly criticizing his demand that Palestinian militants hand over a captured Israeli soldier before any deal is clinched, officials said yesterday.
The move threatens to roil the talks just weeks before Olmert is succeeded by Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawkish leader who wants Gaza's Hamas rulers toppled and probably would take a tougher line in the Egyptian-brokered truce negotiations.
A truce deal has implications beyond cementing the informal Jan. 18 cease-fire that ended Israel's war on Hamas. Without it, there is little chance of advancing already talks to reconcile feuding Palestinian factions.
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 militants first freed Sergeant Gilad Schalit, who was seized in a June 2006 cross-border raid.
Amos Gilad, the negotiator, opposed linking the truce deal with Schalit and criticized Olmert's strategy in an interview last week with the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. After Gilad refused to apologize, Olmert fired him, aides said yesterday.
"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. A longtime adviser to Olmert, Shalom Turgeman, will replace Gilad in the truce talks, while veteran negotiator Ofer Dekel will handle efforts to free Schalit, the aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. There was no immediate reaction from Gilad or Egypt.
Hamas shrugged off the development, with spokesman Fawzi Barhoum saying Israel "never intended to reach any agreement or closure on a truce or a prisoner exchange."
In related news, Israeli and Palestinian officials said yesterday that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Israel and the West Bank next week, her first trip to the region as America's top diplomat.
The Israeli officials said Clinton will arrive in Israel March 2 for two days of meetings with the country's top leaders. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the visit had not been announced by the State Department, which has not released Clinton's schedule for next week.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Clinton would also visit the West Bank during her stay. US officials have no formal contacts with the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Clinton said last week during her Asia trip that she would attend an international donors conference in Egypt March 2 to discuss Gaza reconstruction.
A US official said yesterday that the Obama administration intends to donate hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and rebuilding funds to the Palestinian Authority to help Gaza recover.