Shock as Olmert fires his key negotiator

Egyptian-brokered talks in doubt as defence official sacked over policy row
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The Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, triggered a political and diplomatic shockwave yesterday by summarily removing Amos Gilad, the defence ministry’s top official, from his leading role in delicately balanced Egyptian-brokered negotiations with Hamas.

The move was in response to angry criticism by Mr Gilad in a newspaper last week after Mr Olmert insisted any ceasefire deal with Hamas would have to await the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal seized in 2006 by Gaza militants.

Mr Olmert’s office issued a formal complaint to the Civil Service Commission seeking disciplinary action against Mr Gilad, for making public his “embarrassing and significantly harmful” criticisms of the government strategy.

At the heart of the row appears to be sharp disagreement between the defence ministry and Mr Olmert over the urgency of a long-term ceasefire in Gaza – which Defence Minister Ehud Barak has promoted – as well as on whether progress on it would help to create the climate for Cpl Shalit’s early release.

Israeli media reported that Mr Gilad would be replaced in the ceasefire talks by Yuval Diskin, the head of the intelligence agency, Shin Bet, and Shalom Turgeman, a senior aide to Mr Olmert. Mr Olmert’s office said negotiations on Cpl Shalit’s release would be unaffected.

Officials close to Mr Olmert have complained that the last six-month ceasefire with Hamas failed to produce any progress for Cpl Shalit. But the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, also complained after Mr Olmert’s intervention – endorsed by the Security Cabinet – that Israel had shifted its negotiating position. Mr Mubarak had suggested that a truce in Gaza could be imminent. In remarks quoted in Maariv last week Mr Gilad hit out at anonymous criticisms made of him by government officials. Mr Gilad insisted he had continually informed Mr Olmert’s office of progress in the talks, and said that the government had “insulted” the Egyptians – “almost our last ally here” – and jeopardised national security by its change of stance.

He said of the ceasefire talks: “The Egyptians have shown extraordinary courage. They’ve given us manoeuvring room, they’re trying to mediate, they’re investing efforts, they’re showing goodwill of a kind they’ve never shown before. What are we thinking? That they work for us?”

Mr Gilad was also critical of Israel’s stance in parallel talks, also Egyptian-brokered, aimed at securing the release of Cpl Shalit in exchange for the release of Hamas prisoners, claiming: “At first we submitted 70 names, and that’s it. Since then, we’ve disappeared. Is that how they want to bring Gilad [back]? Because, if they decide tomorrow to release the prisoners, that very same day we’ll get Gilad.”

The security cabinet last week repeated Mr Olmert’s insistence that Cpl Shalit would have to be released before crossings between Gaza and Israel were fully opened.

The campaign to release Cpl Shalit reacted sharply to the latest developments saying: “It is regrettable… that while an Israeli soldier is rotting in captivity, our leaders are occupied by battles of the ego.”

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said: “This shows the Zionist occupation government has no intention of reaching an agreement on the truce or of concluding a prisoner swap.”

An aide to Mr Barak said Mr Olmert was hurting Israel’s interests by deciding “not to avail himself of Amos Gilad’s abilities and experience”. But an official in Mr Olmert’s office said: “It was totally unprofessional and unseemly for a civil servant to publicly attack his boss.”