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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will wait to see in which direction the diplomatic process is headed before giving the IDF a green light to implement the expanded ground operation the security cabinet approved at the end of a tense, six-hour meeting Wednesday, senior sources in the Prime Minister's Office said.
According to these officials, the waiting period would be "very short." The security cabinet, by a vote of 9-0 with three abstentions, approved plans to expand the IDF ground operation to the Litani, which at some points is 30 kilometers from the border, in order to take out the Katyusha launchers that have wreaked havoc on northern Israel over the past month.
Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres (Kadima), Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor), and Industry and Trade Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) cast the abstaining ballots.
Yishai said after the meeting that he thought the IDF should hit at Lebanese infrastructure and bombard villages from which Katyusha firing on Israel was emanating before sending in more ground troops.
Paz-Pines has consistently voted against expanding the operation since the fighting began, and Peres expressed concern in the meeting that expanding the operation would hinder diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing about a significant change in Lebanon's political reality.
A communiqu released after the meeting said plans brought by Defense Minister Amir Peretz and the IDF had been approved, and that the forum empowered Olmert and Peretz to determine when the operation should begin. The decision did not, however, obligate them to act.
One indication of how closely the decision to embark on the expanded operation is tied to the diplomatic process was that Olmert recessed the meeting for some 30 minutes to talk by phone with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That conversation centered on the intense diplomatic wrangling taking place at the Security Council over the US-French draft cease-fire proposal circulated on Saturday.
The US and France disagree over Arab demands for changes to the original draft resolution. A vote on an amended resolution is now not expected until Friday at the earliest.
The White House said Wednesday that it opposed Israel's decision to escalate the violence in the Middle East by deciding to order ground troops deeper into Lebanon to attack Hizbullah targets.
The criticism was among the strongest the Bush administration has issued against Israel since the fighting began four weeks ago.
"We are working hard now to bridge differences between the United States position and some of the positions of our allies," Snow told reporters gathered near President Bush's ranch, where he was vacationing. "We want an end to violence and we do not want escalations."
In addition to expanding the IDF operation and continuing to use the air force, navy and ground forces throughout Lebanon to hit Hizbullah targets, the cabinet resolution also empowered the government to "continue with the efforts to achieve a political agreement, especially in the framework of the UN Security Council."
The resolution listed the goals of this political agreement as follows:
The immediate, unconditional return of the kidnapped soldiers.
The immediate cessation of all hostilities from Lebanon against Israel and against Israeli targets, including the cessation of missile and rocket attacks on Israel.
The full implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559.
The deployment of an effective international force in the south of Lebanon, together with the Lebanese army, along the Blue Line.
Preventing Hizbullah from rehabilitating its military capabilities, mainly by prevention of transfer of weapons and ammunition from Syria and Iran to Lebanon.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, at a press conference after meeting visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that the decision did not have to hurt the diplomatic process and that Israel had said from the first day of the war that it would work both on the military and diplomatic planes in order to secure its goals.
"Israel said that the faster the international community made a decision and helped the deployment of the Lebanese Army, the better," Livni said, adding that Israel had no "hidden agenda."
"We have no desire to continue in military operations to prevent the international community from acting. The opposite is true," she said.
Yishai said that the IDF told the cabinet it would take some 30 days to carry out the operation, but that he believed even more time would be needed.
Justice Minister Haim Ramon said after the meeting that the central military goal now was to significantly reduce Katyusha rocket fire on Israel, and change the status quo from what it was before July 12.
Ramon said that, as traumatic as the War in Lebanon in 1982 was, it should not keep Israel from pursuing its current aims. That war had been against the PLO, he said, while the current one was against Teheran, and would have great significance on the Palestinians and on moderate Arab countries in the region.
One of the suggestions that the cabinet rejected was a proposal to target Lebanese infrastructure. It was also reportedly agreed that the IDF would not enter Tyre, the largest city south of the Litani. Elite commando units have operated there occasionally since the war began.
AP contributed to this report.