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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Campaign for the Return of Gilad Schalit responded harshly to Monday's termination of Amos Gilad's role in negotiating with Egyptian moderators over a cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, calling the move part of the ego games being played by politicians.
Gilad, the Defense Ministry's diplomatic-military bureau chief, was effectively suspended from his role after the Prime Minister's Office filed a disciplinary complaint with the Civil Services Commission against him for blasting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in a Ma'ariv interview last week.
The campaign, active in rounding up awareness for Schalit since his kidnapping in 2006, issued a statement in the wake of the decision, which some say indirectly influences the release of the kidnapped soldier following Olmert's declaration over the matter last week. On Sunday Olmert made a connection between the truce deal and the Schalit issue when he said that Israel would not open the crossings into the Gaza Strip until Hamas freed the soldier.
"It is both distressing and worrisome that [while] an Israeli soldier is in captivity, ego games are the issue occupying the attention of our leaders," the group wrote. "If they would invest half of the effort that they invest in internal politics to advance the release of Gilad, he would have been home a long time ago."
The PMO confirmed on Monday that Gilad would no longer be Olmert's representative in the establishment of a truce with Hamas. The Prime Minister's Office added that all liaising with Cairo on the two issues would now be done by other PMO representatives.
"Due to the inappropriate public criticism leveled by Gilad, he cannot continue as the prime minister's envoy to any political negotiations," Olmert's office said in a statement.
Nevertheless, and in stark contrast to the PMO's position, the Defense Ministry released a statement Monday morning, saying that Gilad would continue to liaise with international officials, including the Egyptians, on behalf of the ministry.
The statement went on to say that the prime minister's decision "not to be assisted by Gilad's abilities and experience" was "his right," but said the main party hurt by the move would be the state of Israel.
Officials in Olmert's office said a longtime adviser to the prime minister, Shalom Turgeman, would replace Gilad on the truce talks. Defense officials said veteran negotiator Ofer Dekel, who brokered the recent prisoner swap deal with Hizbullah, would handle efforts to free Schalit.
There was no immediate reaction from Gilad, and Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zai said that Cairo would not intervene in, what he called, an internal Israeli issue. However, the Egyptian official told Israel Radio that Gilad would be extremely difficult to replace.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum responded to news of Gilad's dismissal by saying that Israel "never intended to reach any agreement or closure on a truce or a prisoner exchange."
The controversy began on Wednesday, when, on the eve of a critical discussion in the security cabinet, where it was decided to link opening the Gaza border crossings to Schalit's release, Gilad was quoted in the newspaper as saying, "I don't understand what they are trying to do. Insult the Egyptians? We've already done that. This is insanity, simply insanity. Egypt remains almost our last ally here. For what? We are harming national security."
Gilad was responding to criticism directed at him from the Prime Minister's Office, to the effect that he acted independently with the Egyptians and was dragging Olmert into a cease-fire agreement he didn't want.
Gilad sharply refuted the allegations, saying that everything he did was recorded and sent on to Olmert.
"I was briefed before every trip I took, and briefed the defense minister and prime minister when I returned, usually that same night," he told Ma'ariv.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement defending his key associate and saying that Gilad was a "dedicated and excellent public servant" who had contributed to the country's security for dozens of years and was known for his "seriousness, responsibility and integrity."
The statement said that it was a "shame" that Olmert had decided during the final days of his term to settle accounts with a "faithful and excellent" civil servant.
Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.