A decision on whether to launch a ground invasion of Gaza has been put off by at least a day, after Israel decided yesterday to give the Egyptians more time to try to broker a cease-fire with Hamas, a senior Israeli official said.
- LIVE BLOG: Day 7 of Israel-Gaza conflict 2012
- End the war while you're ahead
- A suspended election campaign
- After seven days of Pillar of Defense, Hamas is scoring diplomatic points
- Netanyahu rejects French-Qatari cease-fire plan
Today's talks in Cairo are expected to be decisive. The Israeli delegates to the talks, which are being led by Egyptian intelligence chief Gen. Raafat Shehata, plan to return there today to present Israel's response to demands being made by Hamas.
Senior Egyptian officials told Haaretz that the sides are very close, but that some more flexibility is needed from the Israeli side.
The forum of nine senior ministers convened late last night in Jerusalem to be briefed on the negotiations with Egypt.
At a press conference in Cairo yesterday, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal said his organization did not want any further escalation but was prepared for it nonetheless. He said that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a ground operation it would cost him the election in January.
"Now he's threatening a ground operation," Meshal said. "He can launch it, but he knows it will have a price, and Netanyahu knows it will be fatal for him; he will lose the election and lose his place in Israeli politics. That's why he's hesitating and why he's asking the entire world to pressure Egypt and Turkey to pressure Hamas ... but the resistance does not fear his weapons."
Overnight Sunday, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman conducted a lengthy meeting centered around an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire. The three met with the Israeli envoy who had returned from Cairo after several hours of discussions with senior Egyptian intelligence officials, according to the senior Israeli official.
Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman debated giving the green light to a ground invasion, but at about 4 A.M. yesterday, after six hours of discussions, it was decided to let the diplomatic efforts continue, the senior official said.
"It's now 50-50 between a cease-fire and expanding the operation," said the official. "We would prefer a diplomatic solution, but if we have no choice we'll go into Gaza. There's no other way."
Both Netanyahu and Barak are said to be reluctant to launch a ground operation, believing it should be ordered only if Hamas rebuffs all of Egypt's mediation efforts. The two fear the diplomatic fallout that a ground operation would have on Israel's relationships with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the blow such an operation would deliver to Israel's image in the west.
Strong messages against launching a ground invasion have been issued by the White House and European countries, including Britain, France and Germany.
Moreover, Netanyahu and Barak believe a ground operation has the potential for only limited benefit.
Another reason Israel is delaying its decision is the stream of senior officials from various countries to the region. On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived to tell Netanyahu that a ground invasion of Gaza would gravely endanger Palestinian civilians and make it difficult for the international community to continue giving the current Operation Pillar of Defense its backing.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are expected here today to encourage the cease-fire negotiations. Ban spent yesterday in Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and was briefed on the talks. Ban will meet with President Shimon Peres tonight and with Netanyahu tomorrow.
Israel was also waiting yesterday on the European Union foreign ministers forum to meet in Brussels. The EU ministers yesterday expressed support for Israel's right to defend itself and condemned the rocket fire from Gaza, but in the same breath called for a cease-fire and demanded that Israel act proportionately and avoid harming innocent civilians.
Though there was no breakthrough in the cease-fire talks yesterday, neither side seemed ready to walk away.
Israel made it clear to Egypt that it wants a cease-fire in two stages. The first stage is "quiet for quiet" - that is, for Hamas and all the other Palestinian factions in Gaza to stop the projectile fire and other attacks, and for Israel to stop its air bombardments.
During the second stage, after a period of several days without violence, Israel would be prepared to discuss a wider-range agreement to maintain calm.
It's unlikely, however, that many of the demands made by both Israel and Hamas will be readily accepted by other parties. For example, Israel is demanding that any cease-fire remain in place for a period of several years. Israel is also demanding an Egyptian commitment to prevent the smuggling of weapons from Sinai into Gaza, and that Hamas or other terror group members be kept 500 meters from the border fence. Israel also wants international assurance that, if necessary, it would be allowed to operate over the border to foil terror attacks.
Hamas, for its part, wants the naval blockade of Gaza removed, and the full opening of all the border crossings to and from Israel - particularly the regular opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt for the passage of people and goods.
Hamas also wants international assurances that Israel will stop the assassination of senior members of the Palestinian factions.