Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign leaders he spoke with this weekend that he is prepared for a comprehensive ceasefire in the Gaza Strip as soon as possible, if the rocket firing stops. The foreign leaders asked Netanyahu not to escalate the fighting and to give several days to the intensive mediation efforts Egypt has been leading during the course of the weekend.
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Netanyahu spoke to United States President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. In all the conversations, Netanyahu expressed openness to reaching a truce in the next few days. According to Western diplomats, Netanyahu asked the leaders to work through Egypt to pressure Hamas and made it clear that if the rocket fire does not stop Israel will have to invade Gaza with ground forces.
At the end of a round of phone calls to ministers on Friday, the government decided to expand the number of reservists to be called up to 75,000. Thus far only 16,000 reserve soldiers have been called up. Despite preparations for a ground invasion, a senior source at the Prime Minister’s Bureau said that Netanyahu prefers to avoid a large action on the ground and therefore is prepared to consider a ceasefire if his conditions are accepted. The Israeli source noted that even if ultimately there is a ground incursion, it will be relatively limited.
In his conversations with foreign leaders, Netanyahu stressed that Israel is demanding a comprehensive ceasefire, i.e., the cessation of rocket fire and all the other attacks from the Gaza Strip, including attacks on Israel Defense Forces soldiers along the boundary fence. In addition, Israel wants to ensure that the ceasefire will be prolonged and that the shooting will not start up again within a few weeks.
Netanyahu was satisfied with his conversation with Obama on Friday, the second in a few days, which gave him the impression that the American president is strongly behind Israel, according to the source.
The European Union has also continued to publicly express support for Israel and assign responsibility for the situation to Hamas. However, in quiet diplomatic channels, there appears to be nascent international pressure to end the operation.
In possible hint of this trend, a new line appeared in a statement issued by the White House after the second conversation between Obama and Netanyahu: “The two leaders discussed options for de-escalating the situation."
According to both a European diplomat and a senior Americanofficial, Obama, Monti and Merkel told Netanyahu they support Israel’s right to self-defense and that Hamas must stop firing rockets in order to bring about a ceasefire. But the three leaders asked Netanyahu to refrain from an IDF ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and to give Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a chance to mediate with Hamas.
“There are serious efforts towards a ceasefire being led by Egypt,” said the senior American official. “We want to allow this a chance to succeed but it is necessary to give enough time for the talks. We are hearing from the Israelis that a ground action is an option but we understand they prefer arriving at a ceasefire.”
A similar message to refrain from a ground incursion came from British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who on Friday stressed that Israel too has responsibility for the situation.
“When Israel has entered into ground invasions in other conflicts that is when they have lost a good deal of international sympathy and support,” he told the BBC.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will fly to Israel and Egypt Sunday to try to advance a ceasefire. Both Obama and Merkel phoned Morsi a few minutes after their conversations with Netanyahu and asked him to increase the pressure on Hamas. According to a Western diplomat, Merkel told Morsi that Egypt has a key role in promoting a ceasefire and that he must press the Palestinian organizations to stop firing rockets. The American official said President Obama asked Morsi to act as quickly as possible to mediate with Hamas.
According to Western diplomats, Morsi made it clear in his conversations with Obama and Merkel that he was acting with all his might to advance a comprehensive and lasting ceasefire, which he also supports. Morsi stressed that he does not intend to take any action that would lead to the revoking of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Most of the contacts with the Egyptians were conducted in recent days by United States and the major European countries. But during the course of the weekend there were also direct talks between senior Israeli and Egyptian officials. The two main Israeli figures are Netanyahu’s special envoy, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, and the director of policy and political-military affairs at the Ministry of Defense, Amos Gilad. The two have held a series of conversations with Egyptian intelligence chief, Rafaat Shehata, and his deputies.
In addition, in an attempt to warm up chilly relations between the countries, during the weekend Netanyahu sent a personal message to Morsi expressing his condolences for the road accident that killed at least 43 people on Saturday morning, many of them children.