Israel's Gaza truce pointman lashes out at Olmert

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JERUSALEM: Israel s pointman in talks with Egypt on a Gaza truce has lashed out at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for linking the issue to the release of captive Israeli soldier, a report said on Wednesday.

Amos Gilad, the senior defense ministry official who has been shuttling between Israel and Egypt for weeks, said requiring the freeing of Gilad Shalit for a Gaza ceasefire at the last moment risked alienating key ally Cairo.

I don t understand what it is that they re trying to do, the Maariv daily quoted Gilad as telling a close associate. To insult the Egyptians? We ve already insulted them. It s madness. It s simply madness. Egypt has remained almost our last ally here.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in statements published Tuesday that the fate of an Israeli soldier captured in 2006 should not be linked to Cairo-mediated talks on a long-term truce with Hamas in Gaza.

Egypt will not change its position on the truce, the matter of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is a separate issue which can in no way be linked to the truce negotiations, the state-owned Al-Ahram daily quoted Mubarak as saying.

The quotes were published on the day that Israel s powerful security cabinet met to decide whether to back Olmert s position, first stated at the weekend, that without the freeing of the soldier seized by Gaza militants in June 2006 Israel would not agree to a lasting ceasefire with the enclave s Hamas rulers.

Until now the prime minister hasn t involved himself at all. Suddenly, the order of things has been changed. Suddenly, first we have to get Gilad. I don t understand that. Where does that lead, to insult the Egyptians? To make them want to drop the whole thing? What do we stand to gain from that?

Gilad warned that the changed Israeli position risked alienating the Egyptians, whom he hailed for their efforts during the weeks-long negotiations.

The Egyptians have shown extraordinary courage. They ve given us maneuvering room, they re trying to mediate, they re investing efforts, they re showing goodwill of a kind they ve never shown before.

(President Hosni) Mubarak has been fair and courageous, the Rafah border crossing is closed, Hamas is under siege. What are we thinking? That they work for us? That they re a subordinate unit of ours?

Who is going to deliver the goods except for the Egyptians? Qatar has already gone over to the other side, to Iran. Turkey is wavering. Look at what is happening in Jordan, Gilad said.

Don t we understand that we need our relations with these countries more than anything else? That is our national security in this region.

To get Shalit back, Israel must release prisoners as part of a swap, he said.

If they decide tomorrow to release the prisoners, that very same day we ll get Gilad. On a direct flight from Cairo. Because if we take all the prisoners to the Erez crossing and announce that over a megaphone, we ll get Gilad that same moment. But without that, there isn t going to be Gilad.

That s the way it works with the Arabs. That s the mentality. Conquer the entire Gaza Strip and you won t get him. Unless you accidentally happen to come across the pit that he s in. They ll die of hunger before they bring him (to you).

On Wednesday Israeli jets struck a Hamas position and seven Egyptian border tunnels its military says are used to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip, a defense spokesman said.

The spokesman said the strikes were in response to rocket and mortar fire into southern Israel from the coastal strip, stating that 45 such attacks have targeted Israeli soil since separate Jan. 18 ceasefires declared by Israel and Gaza rulers Hamas. -AFP

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