Gaza truce talks stall as Israeli soldier declared dead

Pressure on Israel to negotiate an end to the nearly month-long conflict in Gaza appears to have eased in the past 48 hours after the swift breach of the latest cease-fire by Hamas and the apparent abduction of an Israeli soldier, the Israeli military declared dead Saturday.

Like President Obama in his comments Friday, Mideast experts who spoke with USA TODAY did not question Israel's refusal to resume talks with Hamas after three of its soldiers were ambushed almost immediately after the cease-fire was to have begun. Two of the soldiers were killed during ambush.

In a news conference Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would take all the time it needs to eradicate the threat of Hamas from Gaza. He did not mention the scheduled truce talks but did say the U.S. has been "terrific and has given us tremendous support during the Gaza crisis."

That was a different tone than he struck in a call to State Department officials Friday, according to the Associated Press, which reported that Netanyahu told diplomats "not to ever second-guess me again" whether to undertake a cease-fire.

Talks that were set to begin Sunday in Cairo appear to be stalled, as Israeli officials said its representatives would not attend because a previous cease-fire agreement — brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon — fell apart almost immediately after it was set to begin Friday.

The U.S., U.N. and Egypt have tried to advance cease-fire negotiations as a prelude to a longer-term settlement that would involve other Arab nations. But U.S. efforts to get Turkey and Qatar to press Hamas to negotiate was "a blunder,'' Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Saturday. "That was foolhardy, and I think that's the part that officials in Israel really took umbrage with.''

Royce likened involving Qatar to "inviting the arsonists into the firehouse.''

Regionwide talks should focus on bringing in a multinational force to police Gaza and "separate Hamas from their weapons,'' he said. "It's the credible way to ratchet this (conflict) down and get a disarmament of the type of weapons that in the future would be sure to reignite this conflict.''

The reported capture of an Israeli soldier, Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, appears to have stalled any serious talks about a settlement. Though Israel says he was abducted, Hamas denies any knowledge of Goldin's whereabouts and insists he may have been killed. That changed Saturday, when the Israeli military declared him dead. Obama said Friday there was no reason for Israel to negotiate another truce until Goldin is returned to Israel.

"If (Hamas is) serious about trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released as soon as possible," the president told reporters. He added that it would be difficult to revive the cease-fire without the captive's release.

Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade as a Middle East diplomat — first for President Clinton and then for Obama — said Saturday that Goldin's disappearance could be a diplomatic game changer.

"The American posture publicly should be, we will support negotiations for the cease-fire once Hamas has turned over the (Israeli) soldier,'' said Ross, who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If and when talks resume, Ross said, Israel will insist that any reconstruction in Gaza be monitored to make sure it does not allow Hamas to rebuild cross-border tunnels that the Israeli army is now destroying.

"In the longer term, they'll continue to hammer away on the theme that Gaza needs to be demilitarized,'' he said.

Israel should not have agreed to the Friday cease-fire, let alone go back for more talks, says Caroline Glick of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank in Washington.

"Pieces of paper legitimize (Hamas). They place terrorists on the same moral and legal plane as sovereign, lawful states,'' Glick said in an e-mail. "It is an insult that the U.S. has even suggested that Israel should negotiate with Hamas and it is a betrayal of our alliance that the U.S. has coerced Israel to do so.''

Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, supported Israel's decision to skip the proposed talks in Cairo.

"I'm opposed to putting pressure on Israel publicly to do things that obviously it feels are not in its interest,'' he said. A truce that included destruction of tunnels and disarmament of Hamas would be "a lasting cease-fire,'' he said. "A cease-fire is a good thing, and a good goal, but it can't just be any cease-fire.''


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