Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters on his plane bound for Israel on Thursday just prior to departure that "it would appear we are very close to a decisive crossroads in Gaza," intimating that a major military operation is in the offing.

"The people of Israel have reason to be pleased with the results of the visit to the U.S. in relation to all sensitive security matters concerning the future of the state," Olmert said.

When asked earlier by reporters accompanying him in Washington if the time had come for a large-scale Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, Olmert was noncommittal.

"We are not eager for a military operation," he said. "But we are not shying away from one."

"The way it looks now, we are closer to a military operation in Gaza than we are to any other type of [diplomatic] arrangement," the premier said. "We are close to a decisive crossroads in Gaza, both in terms of setting a timetable as well as pinpointing the exact problem. We have a real problem in Gaza, and I spoke about it throughout the course of all my talks in the U.S."

When asked about the Egyptian-mediate cease-fire in the works, Olmert said: "Israel's conditions for calm have yet to present themselves. I can't at the moment claim to know what exactly Hamas is offering us."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the Israel Defense Forces would open a broad operation in the Gaza Strip before an Egyptian-mediated truce takes effect.

The defense minister, who has repeatedly threatened an invasion, spoke while touring Kibbutz Nir Oz, where a 51-year-old Israeli man was killed earlier in the day by a mortar shell fired from the nearby Gaza Strip.

"The military operation is closer than ever, and it will precede the cease-fire," Barak said, adding: "We are nearing the day of reckoning in the Gaza Strip, in which we will decide whether to go in the direction of an agreement of calm or a wide military operation."

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, a close Olmert confidant, called for a military move. "The Gaza problem must be solved in Gaza," he told Israel Radio.

Next week, Olmert is expected to convene his security cabinet, a forum of senior government ministers, to discuss the violence in Gaza, defense officials said.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said most members of the Security Cabinet oppose a Gaza cease-fire now.

Israel fears that Hamas would use the lull to rearm and has demanded that any agreement include assurances that Hamas halt arms smuggling across its border with Egypt.