Nicolas Sarkozy 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The IDF has a "few more days" to carry on with its Gaza offensive and weaken Hamas before facing intense pressure from the international community for a cease-fire, senior diplomatic officials said Sunday.
According to these officials, a hint of what's to come will begin Monday with the arrival of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a high-level EU delegation for talks in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. The pressure is likely to intensify Wednesday with a scheduled meeting of the UN Security Council.
In addition, diplomatic officials said there was interest in Washington to have the crisis "resolved" by the time US President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20.
The officials said Jerusalem will have a multi-faceted message for Sarkozy and the EU delegation, which will be headed by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country has just taken over the rotating presidency of the EU. It will also include EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana; the European commissioner in charge of external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner; Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt; and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
The first message will be that Israel wants time to seriously weaken Hamas militarily, and then put into place a mechanism on the Egyptian border - possibly some kind of agreement between the US and Egypt that would allow American engineers and technicians to help combat arms smuggling - that would keep Hamas from rearming.
"The more significant that mechanism is," the diplomatic officials said, "the easier it will be for Israel to say that it hit Hamas hard, hurt their motivation to fight again, and harmed their ability to rearm. That would be a good achievement that would allow us to end the operation early."
The idea is to have the mechanism set up on the Egyptian side of the Sinai-Gaza border so that Hamas does not have to be a party to the agreement.
Israel's second message will be that it is not currently interested in linking this operation to attempts to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, bring Gaza back under PA control, or bring the PA back to the Gaza border crossings.
"The international community is trying to use this operation to deal with all kinds of other issues," one senior official said. "We are not saying that there is no need to talk about these issues, but rather that they should not be dealt with in the context of this operation. We did not embark on this operation to bring Abbas to the crossings."
While the official said bringing Gaza back under PA control might be important, it should be an issue for the future and not within the context of ending Operation Cast Lead.
"Many people are saying, let's take advantage of the opportunity that Israel is fighting Hamas to get other things through," he said. "We are not interested in that approach. I have to differentiate between the achievements we need now - hitting at Hamas's motivation and capabilities - and various agreements that could come afterward."
The officials said Israel also wanted to ensure that any cease-fire agreement was not in the form of a diplomatic agreement with Hamas, which would give the organization legitimacy. What Israel would like to see is a cease-fire agreement that comes about after Hamas signals a third party that it is ready to stop shooting rockets at Israel for the long-term.
Diplomatic officials said Israel would also try to dissuade Sarkozy and the EU delegation from pressuring Israel to stop the offensive, because this would only embolden Hamas to hold out for another 24 or 48 hours, believing the world would eventually stay Israel's hand and save it.
Another major thrust of diplomatic efforts being led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is simply to remind various governments that Israel is exercising its right to self-defense, and that no country in the world would tolerate the indiscriminate bombing of its civilian population.
Officials in the Foreign Ministry said this was a simple theme that was necessary to reiterate over and over, especially in light of the demonstrations in capitals around the globe that could place pressure on various governments.
Up until now, one official said, the sense in Jerusalem was that these protests - organized for the most part by Muslim, Arab or far-left groups - had not had much of an impact on governmental attitudes regarding the conflict.
The official said that while there had been numerous calls for an immediate cease-fire and condemnations of "disproportionate" use of Israeli force, these had mostly remained in the realm of declarations having little real impact, and often had been meant to mollify domestic public opinion.
The official said Israel was very pleased with Germany's stand and felt that France was trying to be balanced, but was disappointed with the overall British position.
There was also a great deal of satisfaction that the Czech Republic held the rotating presidency of the European Union, with one official saying that in this role, the Czechs could serve as a bulwark against anti-Israeli positions that might filter up through the EU system.
According to the officials, the number of days Israel had left for the operation depended to a large degree on the ability to keep from accidentally hitting civilian targets inside Gaza, and making sure there was a continuous flow of humanitarian aid. Major civilian casualties, as well as food, water and medical shortages inside the Strip, would significantly intensify international pressure, the officials said.