Barak: If cease-fire deal doesn't meet Israel's demands, Gaza operation will continue
Israel: We'll accept truce if ends to terror; top defense official heads to Cairo for talks.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday evening during a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that "[Israel] is working to ensure that [Operation Cast Lead] creates a safer reality for the southern communities. We will not abandon this objective."
Referring to the possibility of a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, Barak said that Israel "will examine it to make sure it leads to the creation of the desired reality. If it does not, the Israel Defense Forces will continue its operation in Gaza and possibly intensify it."
Israel and Egypt will begin intensive negotiations over the coming days over a French-Egyptian proposal for a truce with the Gaza Strip.
Amos Gilad, a top aide to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, will travel to Cairo to take part in the talks, which are set to begin on Thursday.
A political source in Jerusalem said that the negotiations would focus on an international proposal for a security agreement over the contentious Philadelphi Route, on the Egypt-Gaza border, where Hamas militants have been digging tunnels for smuggling arms and militants.
Meanwhile, the political-security cabinet decided on Wednesday to push ahead with its ground operation, despite growing efforts to reach a truce between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier Wednesday that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to an Egyptian-French proposal for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Israel said it welcomed the initiative, but stopped short of endorsing the proposal.
A statement from Sarkozy's office said: "The president is delighted by the acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the Franco-Egyptian plan presented last night in Sharm el-Sheikh by [Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak."
"The head of state calls for this plan to be implemented as quickly as possible for the suffering of the population to stop," said the statement.
The statement made no mention of Hamas' stance on the proposal. The deputy head of Hamas's political bureau on Wednesday said his group is studying peace initiatives to end the violence in Gaza Strip but rejects permanent truce with Israel.
The Prime Minister's bureau on Wednesday issued a statement that said the office is ready to discuss recent offers made by Mubarak and Sarkozy to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
The Israeli statement reads that Israel "views positively efforts made between Egyptian and Israeli officials to advance these issues."
The statement also said that Israel "expresses its gratitude to the Egyptian President and the French President for their efforts to advance a solution that will bring an end to terror from Gaza and the smuggling of weapons to the Strip."
Israel government spokesman Mark Regev on Wednesday said Israel could accept the proposal if it halts hostile fire from Gaza and includes measures to prevent Hamas from rearming.
"We welcome the French-Egyptian initiative. We want to see it succeed," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But Regev added: "The talks continue on the basis of that initiative. A sustainable calm in the south will be based upon the total absence of hostile fire from Gaza into Israel and an effective arms embargo on Hamas that enjoys international support."
An Israeli delegation will leave for Cairo in the coming days, where they will discuss the proposal with Egyptian leaders.
The mediators' statement also reiterated Israel's position that the current Gaza operation is meant to defend the residents of Israel's South.
"Israel is operating with the intent of bringing an improvement in the security reality in the south of Israel," the statement read.
Egypt said on Tuesday it was proposing an immediate ceasefire between Israel and the Gaza Strip, to be followed by talks on long-term arrangements including an end to the blockade of Gaza
Mubarak presented the truce proposal in a brief statement after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday.
The Netherlands and Denmark, meanwhile, have proposed that the EU contribute personnel for "watertight control and monitoring of the Egyptian-Gaza border."
But Solana said hunting for tunnels would "be done probably with technology, not with people."
Israeli officials say advanced sonar can detect some tunnels but they were skeptical technology alone would prevent Palestinians from rebuilding secret passages under the sandy, 14 km-long Philadelphi corridor.