Ashkenazi cuts short U.S. visit to deal with Shalit


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel’s military chief cut short a visit to the United States to return home to attend talks over the release of a captive Israeli soldier.

Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi’s spokesman notified Israeli media of the decision to return to Israel on Monday afternoon, hours before Ashkenazi was to have been the guest of honor at a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces dinner.

"The IDF spokesman requests that it be emphasized that the decision of the chief of staff derives from the desire and decision of Lt. Gen. Ashkenazi to be present in Israel at a time that discussions are taking place about the return of Gilad Shalit and that there is no further significance to this," the statement said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s outgoing government is in the midst of intense Egyptian-brokered talks with Hamas to return Shalit, a corporal captured by the terrorist group in a cross-border raid in June 2006. Hamas wants hundreds of its members freed from Israeli prisons; Israel is insisting that some of the freed prisoners not return to Gaza.

During his visit to the United States, the IDF statement said, Ashkenazi met with Gen. James Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, and with Dennis Ross, the senior State Department official crafting Iran policy. With Jones, the statement said, Ashkenazi discussed, "the issue of Iran’s nuclear development," as well as the situation on Israel’s northern border and arms smuggling to the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon who launched a war with Israel in 2006, as well as the state of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip.

The statement said Ashkenazi also principally discussed Iran with Ross and with senior U.S. military officials.

A number of top officials have said that Israel and the United States are closely coordinating policy on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

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