ANALYSIS / Key to Israeli Exit From Gaza Rests With Egypt, U.S.

Top Israeli officials head to Cairo, Washington to finalize details of deal for cease-fire in Gaza.

A meeting of the "troika" on Wednesday dealt with preparations for a visit to Cairo by senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, as well as formulating a position that he will present to his Egyptian interlocutors. Upon his return from Cairo, the troika will reconvene to hear his report and to decide whether Israel will accept the Egyptian initiative for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, thus concluding Operation Cast Lead. Israel refrained from issuing a direct response to Hamas' announcement on Wednesday that it is accepting the initiative. However, implicit in the decision to dispatch Gilad to Cairo is Israel's approval of the Egyptian proposal, even if that approval is conditional.

The dissension among the leadership in Jerusalem burst to the fore after Wednesday editions of Haaretz hit newstands with its lead story detailing Defense Minister Ehud Barak's initiative for a cease-fire. The article predictably aroused the fury of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are adhering to their view that the operation has continued for too long. Olmert, meanwhile, remains steadfast. He believes the operation mustn't be stopped before the objectives have been realized. Faced with assessments offered by Barak and the army which state that the objectives have already been achieved, Olmert is leaning on the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, and Mossad chief Meir Dagan, both of whom gave backing to the prime minister in his decision to continue.

On Wednesday, Olmert, Livni, and Barak presented a united front in declaring that they are eagerly awaiting the explanations Gilad is to receive from Egyptian officials. Meanwhile, Livni is negotiating with the American administration via the foreign ministry director-general, Aharon Abramowitz, on an agreement that would tighten intelligence cooperation aimed at stifling weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip. If both tracks - the Egyptian and the American - come to fruition on Thursday, the civilian leadership can vote as early as Thursday night on wrapping up the military operation. The question is whether Egypt will provide Olmert with an exit ramp and whether the agreement with the Americans can be consummated.

Time is becoming a factor. Condoleezza Rice will step down from her post as secretary of state on Friday, which is the last day that she will be able to initial an agreement with Livni. At the heart of the document which was drawn up last week stands an unprecedented political commitment from the Americans to combat all form of arms smuggling practiced by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. Until now, the smuggling has been a secondary issue. Israel would now like the U.S. to explicitly commit to shutting down the arms smuggling networks by sea and by land, share intelligence, and to act as an intermediary vis-a-vis other states.

Israel views this deal as "sticking a foot in the door" of the Obama administration, which will be asked to honor whatever the Bush administration bequeathes upon it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will remain in his post during the transition, is intimately familiar with the details of the agreement.

The U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding is meant to serve as a layer of a sustainable cease-fire, thus it is clear that the outgoing administration will not sign off on it without an Israeli commitment that Jerusalem would cease military operations. One may view this process as an attempt by Livni to bestow upon Olmert a diplomatic achievement that would serve as an exit ramp leading to the army's exit from Gaza. The talks with Cairo necessitate much more time, and those discussions could be continued well after the cease-fire has been signed.