Negotiations lasted into the night, but the cease-fire was elusive. Under mounting international pressure, Israel and Hamas agreed to stop fighting in principle but continued to argue over the details.
Meanwhile, each side stepped up its air strikes, while the Israeli troops massed on the border didn't make a move. In what seems like the exploitation of the final moments before a cease-fire, the Palestinians rained rockets down on Israel's southern towns, killing two people. Rockets also hit Rishon Letzion and Jerusalem's outskirts. The air force continued to pound Gaza, killing at least 10 Palestinians on Tuesday.
It is beyond doubt that Israel's leaders would prefer a truce and not a ground offensive. The problem is that Hamas, despite the blows it has taken during the weeklong operation, is still showing confidence. With broad support from the Arab world and though well aware an Israeli ground offensive would cost it dearly, Hamas is showing a firm will to fight on.
The troika of the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister more or less agreed Tuesday on the desirable outcome. To begin with, they want a general agreement on "quiet for quiet." They aren't that worried about the details, figuring that any detailed agreement wouldn't hold anyway.
Better an unsigned "non-paper" to steady the situation for a while, relying on deterrence (based on the assumption that the past week's show of force drove the point home ). In early 2009, after Operation Cast Lead, a detailed agreement was hashed out with the help of mediators; it had 43 articles, of which none were honored, defense sources say.
Last night, Hamas evidently didn't accept Israel's position. It had several demands; mainly no Israeli military action in the 300-meter-wide perimeter west of the fence, no assassinations and greater flexibility at crossings.
Egypt is leading the effort to coax Hamas. Top Egyptian sources said most points had been agreed on, but late in the evening it turned out the Israelis hadn't yet agreed to the Egyptian proposal, after amendments sought by Hamas. Israel was waiting for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arrive before acceding, the Egyptian sources told Haaretz.
If the talks fail, Israel will almost inevitably step up its attack (though the troika snorted at ministers boasting that Hamas would be brought to its knees ). Ground forces would probably become involved. Tens of thousands of soldiers - both conscripts and reserves - are drilling in the south, though how many might enter if at all remains to be seen. In any case, both military people and politicians are skeptical about the results: The ensuing agreement would probably be little different from the one under discussion last night, after more lives are lost.
Even if a truce is signed at the 11th hour, it could take days for Hamas to rein in smaller factions, depending on its will and ability, as well as on Israel's reaction. Then comes the test of the first rocket fired after the truce. Respond or not? Usually Israel doesn't, only to find that it failed the test.
Meanwhile, rocket attacks stepped up on Tuesday, mainly on the south. In response, Israel attacked tunnels, rocket launchers and other Hamas sites. The most effective air strikes seem to have been on rocket-launching units.
The Palestinians hit an apartment building in Rishon Letzion, though no one was killed. But the south was under heavy fire. For example, 16 rockets were fired at Be'er Sheva within seconds. Most were intercepted by Iron Dome, but enough got through to do damage.
In other attacks on the Negev, a soldier and a civilian were killed, and 20 people were wounded. Meanwhile, leaders on both sides are piling on the public relations, saying that any agreement means they won.
It won't be an easy sell for either side. Both Israel and Hamas have plenty of wounds to lick, and nobody thinks it's the end. The hope is for a couple of years of quiet, diplomats said Tuesday night. To the people on the ground, that sounds a bit optimistic.