Israel to Agree Unofficially to Egypt Cease-fire Deal; Skeptical Barak to Discuss Plan With Mubarak Monday

Gov't skeptical about long-term quiet with Hamas, but hesitant to launch wide-scale Gaza offensive.

Israel plans to accept the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire proposal with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but does not intend to officially declare a commitment to it. Instead, Israel will treat the deal struck indirectly with Hamas as a series of steps beginning with a lull in hostilities, followed by gradual relaxation of the financial blockade of Gaza.

Ehud Barak, who will discuss the cease-fire with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh Monday, is skeptical about the chances of achieving long-term quiet with Hamas, and his feelings are shared by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

However, Barak, who will be attending the World Economic Forum, is set to tell Mubarak and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman that Israel is prepared to stop its military activities in Gaza if Hamas stops firing rockets at Israel. Israel will also try to get Egypt to step up efforts to stop weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. Barak is also expected to say that Israel will lift the blockade and open border crossings only if progress is made on talks aimed at releasing captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

Once quiet reigns, Israel hopes to gradually raise the number of trucks allowed to bring goods into the Strip (only about 60 trucks a day, on average, are now allowed in). If a deal is reached on returning Shalit, in exchange for Israel's release of 450 prisoners, Israel would also agree to reopen the Rafah crossing, essentially lifting the blockade almost completely.

Israel is also softening its position on freeing prisoners. It has eased criteria for the prisoners with "blood on their hands," but Hamas is still seeking the release of some militants who were behind mass-casualty terror attacks. Security sources said the gap on the prisoner swap is slightly smaller than it was a few months ago.

Government officials are slowly coming to realize that a large-scale military operation in Gaza does not serve Israeli interests right now.

It appears from talks which Olmert and senior cabinet ministers held recently with representatives of the Bush administration and key European Union states that Israel will not have international support if it organizes an assault on Gaza now. However, Israeli sources said they think if it turns out, in a few weeks or months, that the cease-fire has failed because of Hamas, the U.S. and some European states might be more understanding about an attack.

Israel is also hesitating about launching a military offensive in the Strip because of the increasing concern over Iran's influence over the situation in countries bordering Israel, particularly Lebanon. A large operation in Gaza is liable to lead to escalation of Hezbollah activities in Lebanon and the opening of a northern front. Israel is feeling the Iranian threat more strongly, in part due to the closer relations between Tehran and Damascus, and the Iranian connection to decisions being made by Hezbollah in Beirut and by Hamas in Gaza.

The political-security cabinet is due to meet Wednesday to discuss the cease-fire, which Suleiman said had a good chance of succeeding.

"If Ehud Barak gives the green light to the components of the agreement concerning a calm, it will be possible to determine by tomorrow already the hour the cease-fire begins," Suleiman told MK Yossi Beilin(Meretz-Yahad) at Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday. Suleiman said Israeli approval of the deal would pave the way to an agreement with the Palestinian factions during a meeting Tuesday in Cairo.

Suleiman said if Israel were to agree to free the prisoners Hamas has named, Shalit's release could be included as part of the cease-fire deal, but he added that since Israel is rejecting most of the names, more negotiations will be necessary after the cease-fire takes effect.

The Israel Defense Forces will receive an order to begin an operation only if the Egyptian proposal fails, and Qassam fire from Gaza intensifies to the point of incurring serious losses in the western and northern Negev. As the politicians talk about a cease-fire, the IDF is preparing for the chance that the security situation in the South will worsen.