(photo credit: IDF [file])
Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, returned from Cairo on Friday afternoon and was briefing Defense Minister Ehud Barak on talks there to arrive at a ceasefire between the IDF and Hamas in Gaza.
Gilad went to Egypt along with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's diplomatic adviser Shalom Turgeman for further talks on Israeli requirements for a Gaza truce.
According to Reuters, the main points disputed in the current proposal were the duration of the proposed truce, which Hamas insists on being a year, and how quickly Israel would complete the withdrawal of its forces from the Gaza Strip and reopen the crossings.
Israel denied it had reservations on Hamas's demands, since "it is not negotiating with Hamas," Army Radio reported.
Unconfirmed reports late Thursday night suggested a "time out" could start within 72 hours, leading to a two-week truce in which a more lasting arrangement could be finalized.
Livni embarked late Thursday night for the United States to sign an agreement with Washington which aims to put an end to arms smuggling from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.
Before leaving Israel, Livni made it clear that halting arms smuggling was a crucial part of any truce deal. "Israel is going to retain its right to defend itself anyway, also when it comes to the smuggling of weapons, not only to rockets being fired at Israel," she said.
Foreign Ministry Director-General Aaron Abramovich had been in Washington for talks on the agreement, which would intensify intelligence cooperation in efforts to block smuggling routes before the weapons make it to tunnels linking the Sinai Peninsula to the Strip.
After US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Olmert and said the US would sign the agreement, the premier gave Livni approval to fly to the US. Coupled with Egyptian commitments to step up their own efforts along the border together with international assistance, the agreement would be part of a mechanism Israel has demanded as part of a cease-fire.
Earlier Thursday evening, Olmert met his two top ministers and a senior Defense Ministry official to discuss Hamas's response to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal and whether it met Israel's requirements for halting Operation Cast Lead.
Olmert, Barak and Livni were briefed by Gilad, who traveled to Cairo earlier in the day for a meeting with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
The meeting took place as both diplomatic activity and the military operation in the Gaza Strip intensified, with IDF forces moving into Gaza City.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held high level talks in Israel on Thursday, calling for a cease-fire, as did German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Since the beginning of the military operation in Gaza, Olmert has said its goals were to end the rocket fire on the South and stop the smuggling of arms.
Although details of the potential cease-fire agreement are still fluid, the basic parameters are an immediate end to the fighting followed by an IDF withdrawal after it becomes clear Hamas has stopped firing rockets on Israel.
Once Israel pulls out, Egypt - together with technical and logistical assistance from the international community - will establish a mechanism to stop arms smuggling. This will be augmented by the agreement between Israel and the US.
The next step will be indirect talks through the Egyptians regarding the opening of the Gaza crossings and the release of kidnapped soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit. According to Israeli officials, what still needed to be worked out was a timetable for the IDF withdrawal, as well as the duration of the cease-fire.
In addition, according to various reports, certain disagreements have emerged regarding some arrangements. For instance, on the question of the Rafah crossing, both Israel and Egypt want to see it opened under EU monitors, with a Palestinian Authority presence, and not Hamas. Hamas, however, is demanding a presence as well.
As to the Philadelphi Corridor, Israel was interested in a significant international presence, while both Egypt and Hamas were opposed.
Hamas officials told Egypt they were prepared to accept a one-year truce, with the possibility of subsequent renewals, provided that Israel withdrew all troops from Gaza within five to seven days and all border crossings were immediately opened, diplomatic sources said. They also sought international guarantees that the crossings would stay open, the sources added.
These positions did not differ markedly from earlier Hamas stances, and underline that there are still striking differences between the two parties in their indirect, Egypt-mediated talks on a cease-fire.
Other Hamas officials were quoted Thursday night rejecting the Egyptian proposal and demanding unspecified changes.
Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal claimed on Thursday that Israel "has not broken Hamas" and "has not broken the resistance." He asserted that not a single Hamas rocket launcher had been hit and said more Israelis had been killed than Hamas operatives in the three weeks of fighting.
While the focus of Thursday's efforts was in Cairo, the UN's Ban was pressing for a cease-fire during talks in Israel.
Ban, who was informed soon after he arrived that the IDF had shelled the UNRWA compound in Gaza City, said that the death toll in the Gaza operation had reached an "unbearable point."
At a press conference with Livni after their meeting, he said he believed that "certain elements were in place that would enable a cease-fire, but it all hinges on the political will of both sides."
"Clearly a return to the status quo ante can be no option," Ban said. "If a cease-fire is to be sustainable, we need arrangements to ensure a halt to the re-supply of weapons to Gaza militants, a reopening of the crossings, a release of Cpl. Schalit, and that Gaza is reunited with the West Bank under one legitimate Palestinian authority."
Ban expressed "strong protest and outrage" at the shelling of the UNRWA compound and said he phoned Barak after hearing about it. Barak "said to me it was a grave mistake and took it very seriously."
The two met later in the day, and Barak issued a statement that stopped well short of an apology. According to the statement, Barak told Ban - as well as the head of the International Red Cross, Jacob Kellenberger, with whom he met earlier in the day - that Hamas was using civilians as human shields and firing at IDF soldiers from positions near UN installations.
"The IDF soldiers are responding, and will respond, as an act of self defense against any attempts to harm them," Barak said.
Livni also met with Kellenberger and urged him to mention Schalit in his public statements and to demand that the Red Cross be allowed access to him.
"Hamas completely prevents access to Gilad Schalit and doesn't permit an assessment of his condition," she said. "Currently, and primarily because of your visit, Hamas should again feel pressured by you to allow access to him."
Thursday evening, President Shimon Peres greeted Ban as "a man of peace on a mission of peace" and declared that it was urgent to achieve peace as soon as possible "to save lives and the shedding of blood."
After enduring years of rocket attacks, Israel had no choice but to respond, said Peres. There was no other way to stop the firing of missiles. Peres assured Ban that Israel had no territorial ambitions in Gaza, nor did it take any pleasure in Palestinian suffering. "It is against our ethics as a nation," he said.
Ban reiterated his condemnation of rocket fire on Israeli civilians, which he recognized as terror and for which he said there was no justification.
"No nation should have to live like this," he said. "Israel has the right to live in peace and security. Israel has the right to defend its citizens and should be treated by the same standards as all member states of the UN."
But Israel also has the responsibility to act wisely, he noted. "The rockets must stop and the Israeli offensive must end. All bloodshed must cease and violence must be halted."
In related news, Olmert's office put out a statement saying that he and Rice also agreed to put recent events - meaning his boast that he had intervened with President George W. Bush to obtain a US abstention in the UN Security Council - behind them.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.