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Olmert sacks his chief Gaza negotiator

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sacked Israel's lead negotiator on a Gaza Strip truce for publicly criticizing the Israeli leader's handling of the talks, Olmert's office said yesterday - a move that threatens to set back the already troubled contacts.

The removal of Amos Gilad comes at a critical juncture. Olmert hopes to wind up a cease-fire deal and win the release of a captured Israeli soldier before his term ends within a few weeks. His designated successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, says Israel halted its Gaza offensive too soon and must topple the territory's Islamic Hamas rulers.

Gilad, a veteran Defense Ministry official, objected to Olmert's recent demand that Palestinian militants free Sergeant Gilad Schalit before Israel signs a truce agreement cementing the shaky cease-fire that ended Israel's recent war against Hamas. Gilad made his opinions known in an interview last week with the Maariv newspaper.

"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.

Officials in Olmert's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a longtime adviser to the prime minister, Shalom Turgeman, would replace Gilad in the truce talks. Defense officials said veteran negotiator Ofer Dekel, who brokered a recent prisoner swap deal with Lebanese militants, would handle efforts to free Schalit, snatched by Hamas-affiliated militants during a 2006 raid into Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel "never intended to reach any agreement or closure on a truce or a prisoner exchange."

Olmert, who is the focus of corruption allegations, will step down after a new government is formed. The negotiations could get tougher if they're not wrapped up by the time Netanyahu takes power within the next few weeks.

Olmert's tiff with Gilad started when the Prime Minister announced last week that Israel would not reopen Gaza's long-blockaded borders - the main Israeli concession in any truce - until Schalit were freed.

Hamas is desperate to reopen the borders to start repairing the vast destruction from the Israeli onslaught. But it objects to linking the prisoner release to the truce negotiations.


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