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Israel rules out truce unless soldier freed

Cease-fire length also sticking point

By Joseph Nasr
Reuters / February 15, 2009
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JERUSALEM - Israel said yesterday that it would not agree to a long-term truce with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip unless an Israeli soldier held by the Islamists was freed.

Full opening of the Gaza border crossings has been a Hamas condition for a truce. Israel linked that demand with the release of Gilad Shalit, held captive in Gaza since 2006, when he was kidnapped in a cross-border raid.

"The prime minister's position is that Israel will not reach understandings on a truce before the release of Gilad Shalit," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said in a statement.

Palestinian officials had reported significant headway in the indirect talks mediated by Egypt.

Hamas wants Israel to free hundreds of Palestinians held in its jails in exchange for Shalit. But it wants talks on a prisoner swap deal and the opening of Gaza's crossings to take place after a truce announcement.

A fragile cease-fire on Jan. 18 ended Israel's three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip. The ceasefire has largely held, but Israel has responded to sparse cross-border rocket fire with air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza.

A Hamas official said no announcement on a longer ceasefire would be made yesterday, as had been expected.

Olmert's office said any decision on the truce talks would be made while taking into account "the new political circumstances" after an Israeli election produced a strong showing for right-wing parties in Parliament.

Israeli media said Olmert was hinting he would consult Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud Party, who is favored to form the next government.

Hamas official Taher al-Nono said from Cairo that efforts were underway to try to overcome what he called "Israeli obstacles" that were delaying the announcement of an agreement.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, said the Egyptian-mediated talks were stalled by disagreement on the duration of the cease-fire. Israel wanted an open-ended cease-fire, while Hamas favors an 18-month truce that could be extended.

Hamas had said earlier last week that most of the stumbling blocks had been overcome and a cease-fire would be announced today.

Cross-border violence continued yesterday. The Israeli army said Palestinian militants detonated an explosive against a military patrol on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza frontier.

The Feb. 10 Israeli election failed to produce a clear winner as prime minister. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima Party narrowly defeated Likud. But Netanyahu is in a better position to form the next coalition government given a right-wing majority bloc in Parliament.

Israeli politicians said on Friday that Livni and Netanyahu were weighing a unity government that would include the leftist Labor Party in a bid to keep out nationalist parties.

If that fails, Netanyahu could turn to religious and hard-line parties to form a government that may reject any cease-fire with Hamas.

Olmert, who resigned over a corruption probe, will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, a process that could take weeks.

Israeli media reported that Olmert was making an extra effort to secure a cease-fire deal that includes Shalit's release before he stepped down.

Also yesterday, Turkish-Israeli ties soured further after Ankara summoned Israel's ambassador over an army general's comments, which the Turkish military said could threaten cooperation between the Middle East allies.

The Foreign Ministry called in Ambassador Gabby Levy to protest comments by Israel's land forces commander reported in the Haaretz newspaper. Major General Avi Mizrahi criticized Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus and its conflict with Kurdish separatists.

"The relevant statements of Avi Mizrahi are ungrounded and unacceptable and as such we have requested an urgent explanation from Israeli authorities," the ministry said in a statement.

It was the latest sign of tension between Israel and Turkey, which maintain close military ties but whose alliance has been strained by Israel's offensive on Gaza.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said in an interview last week that he was saddened by the results of the Israeli elections, which showed gains by right-wing parties.

"Unfortunately the election has painted a very dark picture," he said on board his plane during a campaign trip.

Erdogan urged the next Israeli government to look at how it conducted policies and actions toward the Palestinians.

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