Lieberman to UN Chief: Urging Israel to Avoid Ground Offensive Bolsters Hamas

Ban Ki-moon arrives in Israel as part of an extensive diplomatic push, aimed at bringing Israel and Hamas to hold their fire; Hillary Clinton to land later in the day.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

A possible ground offense in the Gaza Strip would be much harsher than the limited operation Israel has undertaken thus far, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The foreign minister also warned the UN chief that diplomatic efforts geared at convincing Israel to refrain from such action would only serve to bolster Hamas.

The UN chief arrived in Israel as part of an extensive and international diplomatic push meant to bring Israel and Hamas to a cease-fire. Ban moved up his arrival in Israel after his meeting with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was canceled due to the death of the latter's sister.

Ban met with the Egyptian foreign minister and with the chief of intelligence and discussed with them contacts regarding a cease-fire.

Immediately after landing in Israel, Ban met Lieberman, and in the evening is scheduled to meet with President Shimon Peres. Another senior official who arrived in Israel on Monday was German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who also met with Netanyahu and Peres on Tuesday morning.

Speaking to Ban, Lieberman said that if Israel elected to embark on a ground offensive in Gaza, "it wouldn't be a limited operation, like a Pillar of Defense II, but more like an Operation Defensive Shield II," referring to Israel's comprehensive actions in the West Bank during the Second Intifada.

"Comments and public declarations, urging Israel to refrain from a ground offensive, bolster Hamas and lengthen the current conflict," Lieberman said.

Ban arrived at the capital just as a rocket alert was sounded, after Gaza militants fired two rockets at the Jerusalem area. The UN chief, however, was in transit and did not hear the alarm.

Diplomatic efforts will reach a peak Tuesday evening, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will arrive in Israel directly from Cambodia, after accompanying U.S. President Barack Obama on his visit to Southeast Asia.

Clinton will hold a series of meetings on Wednesday. She will meet in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres, Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The U.S. secretary of state will also go to Ramallah, where she will meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Together with Obama, Clinton has conducted intensive telephone diplomacy over the past two days with the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, France and other countries. Clinton and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon have been in regular contact with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, and even conducted video conference calls with them from Air Force 1.

Meanwhile, on Monday evening, Obama contacted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and asked him to continue his efforts to achieve a cease-fire. Immediately afterwards, Obama called Netanyahu, heard updates from him and asked him to give more time to the Egyptian mediation efforts before intensifying the campaign in Gaza. In all their conversations, Obama and Clinton asked the leaders in the region to exercise their influence on Hamas to stop the firing of rockets.

At the same time, in Cairo preparations are being made for a crucial meeting between representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Egyptian intelligence officials who are mediating between the organizations and Israel. Haaretz has discovered that the Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, and Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Shallah, are expected to meet again Tuesday morning with the chief of Egyptian intelligence, Raafat Shehata and his staff in an attempt to sum up the final details of the cease-fire agreement.

During the meeting the two are supposed to give their consent to the wording of the cease-fire agreement and to discuss final disputes. In effect, if they give their consent, at the end of the meeting a cease-fire between the sides will be declared. The two are supposed to approve the final version of the proposal that Israel sent to Egypt in the wake of Monday night's meeting of the forum of nine senior Israeli ministers.

On Tuesday morning, after more than four hours of nighttime discussion, the ministers of the security cabinet decided to continue to allow time for the Egyptian mediation efforts, in order to try to reach a cease-fire. At the meeting the assessment was that exhausting the diplomatic process vis-à-vis Egypt and the international community would give Israel greater legitimacy to launch a ground operation in Gaza if discussions of the cease fire reach a dead end.

An Israeli political source said that the Israel Defense Forces continue to operate in the Gaza Strip in accordance with the defined objectives of the operation, "but before making a decision about a ground operation the prime minister intends to exhaust the diplomatic process in order to examine the possibility of achieving a long-term cease fire." The source noted that Israel prefers to achieve the objectives of the operation without entering Gaza, "but if there's no choice we'll do it, and the IDF is prepared for that."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (L) shakes hands with Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman during their meeting in Jerusalem November 20, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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