The United Nations Security Council met overnight Thursday on a resolution designed to bring a speedy halt to Israel's 13-day-old offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The vote over a resolution was apparently postponed due to Israeli pressure.
Key Arab nations and Western powers reached agreement on the main elements of a resolution, the head of the Arab League said.
The resolution was supported by the United States and Arab nations that have close ties to Hamas. But it will be up to Israel and Hamas to decide to stop their military activities.
"Peace will be made in the region, not in New York, but actions in New York can support the search for peace in the region," a senior British official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
The UN Security Council delayed consultations until 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT), when the text is expected to be presented to the full 15-member council.
But France, which holds the Security Council presidency this month, might want to delay a vote until Friday, diplomats said.
The reported agreement came on the 13th day of an Israeli air and ground offensive against Hamas militants who rule Gaza and the third day of a high-level emergency meeting of the Security Council called by the Arabs to try to end the conflict.
It was based on a text drafted by Britain and backed by the US and France - all veto-wielding members of the Security Council - and amendments by key Arab negotiators including the foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Qatar.
The latest draft "stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza." It "condemns all violence and hostilities directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism."
The draft also calls on UN member states "to intensify efforts to provide arrangements and guarantees in Gaza in order to sustain a durable cease-fire and calm, including to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition and to ensure the sustained re-opening" of border crossings.
The draft also calls for the "unimpeded provision and distribution" of humanitarian aid throughout Gaza, welcomes the opening of "humanitarian corridors," encourages "tangible steps" to Palestinian reconciliation and renewed efforts to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace "where two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace..."
Arab nations set aside a draft resolution they had revised to try to reach agreement with the Western powers.
Israeli sources said that no such resolution would be acceptable unless it ensured the establishment of a mechanism to prevent a resumption of arms smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor from Egypt.
Other texts, however, called outright for an immediate cease-fire, to be followed by the establishment of an anti-smuggling mechanism, and then by the opening of Gaza border crossings.
In Jerusalem, Israel's political leadership was meeting Thursday night to monitor the developments at the UN, and to discuss an Egyptian cease-fire proposal raised in Cairo with Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad.
Amid the frenzied diplomacy, differences among Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni continued to surface.
Arab negotiators were pushing for the addition of language calling for an immediate IDF withdrawal from Gaza and a lifting of the Israeli blockade on the Strip - both key sticking points.
The British draft called for the continuation of negotiations on a comprehensive, two-state peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as a reconciliation effort between Hamas and the Fatah-led PA.
Israeli officials in New York, meanwhile, maintained their opposition to any Security Council action that would put Hamas on the same footing with Israel.
Israel, as a member state, would be legally bound by any resolution in a way that Hamas, operating outside the control of the PA and listed as a terrorist organization by the US and Israel, would not - an asymmetry not typically seen in conflicts involving Security Council consideration.
"This is why Israel said it did not want a [Security Council] meeting from the beginning," said Israeli mission spokeswoman Mirit Cohen. "They're not part of the UN and you can't compare between a member state and a terrorist organization."
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev told The Jerusalem Post this week that negotiations should take place in the region, while her predecessor, Danny Gillerman, told reporters in a conference call that the UN "should not play any role" in resolving the crisis.
Meanwhile Olmert, on a visit to Gaza Division Headquarters, said Israel had not yet achieved its goals.
"The bottom line, the test that will set the political leadership's decision [on whether to continue the operation], is how to ensure that the reality the IDF is currently changing does not return and that quiet prevails," he said.
"We have not yet reached this point, and the IDF has not yet been asked to do everything necessary to do so - the decision is still before us," he added.
The security cabinet, which on Wednesday approved a continuation of Operation Cast Lead but stopped short of giving the green light for the third stage, is scheduled to meet again in the coming days.
Defense officials said the IDF had reached the planned positions in Gaza and was prepared to launch Stage Three, which calls for expanding the operation, possibly into Gaza City and the southern Gaza Strip.
Reservists who were called up earlier in the week will be ready to enter the Gaza Strip on Friday. Division 162 from the Central Command has already been put on operational standby for possible deployment in the Strip.
Ten thousand reservists have been trained for such an operation, and another 50,000 could be called up if needed.
Livni believes that Israel has dealt Hamas a powerful blow, and that when it determines that the blow was heavy enough Israel should unilaterally declare a cease-fire, but make it clear to Hamas and the world that any infraction by Hamas will result in more Israeli military action.
The logic behind her not wanting to enter into an agreement with the Egyptians on a mechanism to prevent and monitor arms smuggling from Gaza, according to diplomatic officials, is to deny Hamas any legitimacy it could gain from such an accord. She also does not think such a mechanism would be effective.
According to these officials, Livni believes that any agreement on a monitoring mechanism would curtail Israel's freedom of action inside Gaza.
Barak, meanwhile, does not want a cease-fire until a mechanism is agreed upon.
Defense officials said the IDF was split on whether to end the operation and pull out of Gaza in the coming days, or expand it and send soldiers into additional parts of the Strip with the aim of further damaging Hamas's military wing.
At the moment, the dialogue with the Egyptians is being conducted without the active participation of the IDF.
Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, went to Cairo Thursday for talks on the matter. When he returned in the evening, he briefed Olmert, Livni, Barak and top security officials on his meeting.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office said that "the process is ongoing." He gave no more details about the Egyptian proposal.
Olmert is expected to travel to Egypt to meet President Hosni Mubarak when a deal is near completion. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is expected there on Friday.
Defense officials said that once the dialogue progresses to include the security parameters, the IDF would join the talks and lay out Israel's needs for a lasting and viable truce.
These will include the condition that Hamas's rearmament be stopped and that Egypt, or a joint Egyptian-American force, increase efforts to stop weapons smuggling from Sinai into Gaza.
"We will not make the same mistake as we made after the Second Lebanon war with UN [Security Council] Resolution 1701, which did not stop Hizbullah's rearmament," a senior defense official explained.
Hamas, meanwhile, has said it will not accept any agreement that does not include an opening of the border crossings and an IDF withdrawal.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said there would be no meeting between Israel and Hamas officials, whose arrival date in Cairo is uncertain.
Aboul Gheit said Egypt would be asking Israel and Hamas for a temporary truce "that would lead to a consolidated, permanent cease-fire."
Then, he said, negotiations would take place with the European Union and the PA on how to open the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian-Gaza border.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who worked on the cease-fire proposal with the Egyptians, said at a press conference in Paris after meeting with German Chancellor Angel Merkel that "the weapons must fall silent. The escalation must stop. Israel must obtain guarantees for its security and leave Gaza - the sooner the better."
Sarkozy said Israel must get a guarantee that weapons will not pass through that border.
"As of that moment, the Israeli army must withdraw from Gaza. Then, in a second phase, we will talk about reopening the border crossings," he said.
Merkel said time was of the essence.
"Everything must be done to get a quick cease-fire. The key is guarantees for Israel's security, particularly an end to weapons smuggling," she said.
A European Commission official will be arriving here in the coming days to coordinate EU humanitarian aid.
Simon Horner, a spokesman for the commission's humanitarian aid department, ECHO, said at a Tel Aviv press briefing that the role of the liaison officer would be to facilitate the smooth and continuous access of EU aid to Gaza, as well as to coordinate the EU's relief efforts between the commission and the various EU member states.
Food, clean drinking water, medical assistance and shelter were the main priorities in Gaza, he said.
In New York, negotiators continued their work, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner all extending their stays to continue talks.
By Thursday afternoon, Arab negotiators agreed to set aside a draft resolution they had proposed calling for an immediate cease-fire in favor of a rival British initiative, backed by the US and France - all permanent members with the power to torpedo any Arab draft - according to a report from The Associated Press.
The Council failed to pass a statement condemning the violence last Saturday after the American delegation rejected a Libyan draft statement as biased against Israel.
High-level meetings Tuesday and Wednesday left the council divided after the Arabs insisted on a legally binding resolution demanding an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli troops, while the US, Britain and France wanted a weaker statement emphasizing that a "durable cease-fire" requires guarantees on reopening border crossings and preventing arms smuggling by Hamas.
Miliband presented the British-drafted resolution Thursday morning. Arab ministers discussed that text, then rejoined their Western counterparts for further talks.
"We're still working very hard. We're making some progress," Rice told reporters as she left one set of talks.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly was scheduled to convene Thursday evening for an emergency session about the Gaza conflict under the auspices of continuing an earlier debate about Israeli settlement activity.
The Israeli mission sent a letter of protest to General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann accusing him of violating UN procedure by calling the plenary session while the Security Council continued working toward a resolution.
Jpost.com staff contributed to this report.