Israel: No Gaza raid, we'll give truce talks a chance
IDF still preparing in case talks fail; Jordan warns Israel against raid; source: Hamas ready for truce.
Israel's leadership on Wednesday decided not to launch a much-touted invasion of the Gaza Strip, in order to give Egyptian-brokered truce efforts more time to succeed.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev announced the decision in an official statement on Wednesday afternoon.
Regev warned that although there will be no broad military action for the time being, the Israel Defense Forces will continue its preparations in case the truce talks fail. The announcement came after a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet on the issue of the proposed truce with Hamas in Gaza.
Egypt has been trying to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers for the last several months.
Earlier Wednesday, Vice Premier Haim Ramon called for Israel to immediately embark upon a broad military operation in Gaza in order to oust Hamas from the coastal strip.
"The government must take a strategic decision, and the only decision that the government must take is clear and simple," Ramon told Army Radio. "We must bring an end to the Hamas government and that needs to be done through military means."
The vice premier's remarks came despite the maximum ambiguity that Israel has maintained about its intentions regarding Gaza.
Ramon also said: "The truce deal with Hamas will not prevent a military operation, and there is no option other than to put an end to the organization on the ground."
Wednesday's cabinet meeting was to focus on the proposal for a tahadiyeh (lull) that was reached with Egyptian mediation. A similar meeting last week was canceled because Olmert decided that conditions were not ripe for a lull in the fighting in Gaza.
Jordan's king warns Israel against launching Gaza operations
Jordan's King Abdullah II has warned Israel against launching military operations in Gaza, saying it would hinder peace efforts and endanger regional security.
Abdullah made his warning in a royal palace press statement following talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman. Abbas had earlier traveled to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
"Any vast Israeli military operation in Gaza poses a great danger to the security and stability in the Mideast and drastically harms efforts to achieve peace," Abdullah said Wednesday.
Gov't sources: Hamas may be ready for a truce
However, government sources in Jerusalem said Tuesday that since last week's cabinet meeting was canceled, there have been changes in the situation which suggest that Hamas is ready for a truce.
The radical Islamic organization, which has ruled Gaza since its violent takeover of the Strip last June, has agreed to a mutual cease-fire, but thus far, it has opposed all of Israel's other demands.
Israel has demanded that the cease-fire also include a cessation of arms smuggling into Gaza and a deal on a prisoner exchange that would free abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
A defense source involved in the efforts to gain Shalit's release said Tuesday that the letter Hamas delivered to Shalit's family, via the Carter Center in Ramallah, was not related to the attempts to conclude a truce, and its timing was coincidental. "The letter was delayed for some time for a variety for reasons," the source said.
Defense source: Shalit negotiations deadlocked due to Hamas inflexibility
The source added that the talks with Hamas over a prisoner exchange are at an impasse because of the group's unwillingness to be flexible.
"The ball is in Hamas' court," the source said. "It insists that Israel release the prisoners on its list or there will be no deal. But with the exception of 70 names that Israel has approved, all the rest are unacceptable to us."
Israel has rejected most of the names on the Hamas wish-list because they were directly responsible for the murder of Israelis.
Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with the heads of the defense establishment Tuesday in preparation for Wednesday's diplomatic-security cabinet meeting. No details of their meeting were released, as Olmert and Barak said they would prefer to keep Israel's intentions secret from Hamas.
"We must not talk very much," Barak told the full cabinet Tuesday. "When the moment is right, we will take action. It is important that the cabinet listen well to what the army says can be achieved, and what cannot be achieved, via an operation in the Gaza Strip."
In private conversations Tuesday, some ministers speculated that Israel would adopt an unofficial cease-fire with Hamas rather than formally accept the Egyptian proposal.
"The existing situation will continue, and suddenly we will find ourselves in a truce, without there ever really being an orderly decision-making process about it," predicted one.
A senior government source who is well-versed in the cabinet's deliberations expressed a similar view.
However, there is a third option beside agreeing to a truce or embarking on a large-scale ground operation: stepped-up operations against Hamas, including a resumption of assassinations, that fall short of a full-scale invasion. That would bring more pressure to bear on Hamas, a senior government source said, and perhaps that would lead the Islamic organization to accept Israel's conditions.
Defense sources explained Tuesday that the issue of arms smuggling is critical, because while Egypt has improved its efforts to stop the smuggling into Gaza, the results are still far from satisfactory.
A senior Hamas source said Tuesday that the tahadiyeh is being delayed because Israel has still not given Egypt its response to the truce proposal. According to the source, Hamas has sent Israel a list of questions that it wants clarified.
The Hamas source added that the group is waiting to hear what the diplomatic-security cabinet decides today on the truce.