(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Gaza cease-fire announced dramatically Saturday night followed weeks of internal Palestinian discussions, continuous contact between the offices of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and an apparent green light from Damascus-based Hamas head Khaled Mashaal.
Olmert, at a speech dedicating a new high school in Rahat on Sunday, said his office had been in continuous contact over the last few weeks with Abbas's office.
"There is dialogue," he said, "and there is understanding."
This dialogue was apparently behind Olmert's furor at Defense Minister Amir Peretz's unauthorized telephone conversation with Abbas last Sunday, a concern - as Olmert confidants said at the time - that it would disturb cease-fire plans already in the works.
But much more than contact between the two offices was needed for the Palestinian decision to initiate a cease-fire.
A senior source in the security establishment said that although he couldn't say whether Mashaal ordered the cease-fire, there was no question that his okay was needed, and that this was coordinated between Mashaal and the Egyptians. Mashaal was in Cairo last week.
The Jerusalem Post reported on Friday that Israel was indirectly conveying messages to Hamas that it was interested in a cease-fire. Government sources said Sunday that Israel had two channels through which this could be done: Egypt or Abbas.
But diplomatic officials said the cease-fire initiative was born more of Palestinian domestic political needs than of any intensive, back-channel negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to these officials, the Palestinians have their own reasons for wanting a cease-fire, and for wanting it to hold. They said the severely cash-strapped PA is desperate for international funds, funds dependent to a large extent on the creation of a PA unity government. And although Abbas did not condition a unity government on a cease-fire, it is widely perceived to be an important component necessary for him to put one together.
"The PA is choking, it has no money," one diplomatic official said. "They need a cease-fire."
Defense Ministry officials said Hamas's willingness to agree to a cease-fire was out of concern about an imminent, large-scale IDF incursion into the Gaza Strip if the Kassam rockets continued to fall.
The Palestinians were very concerned about a possible military operation, a Defense Ministry official said. There was "no doubt" this fear was connected to the Palestinian decision to go for a cease-fire, he added.
US diplomatic officials, meanwhile, denied speculation that the cease-fire declaration was timed to coincide with US President George W. Bush's visit to Jordan on Wednesday to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
According to this speculation, Olmert and Abbas wanted to "clear the air" before Bush's arrival to pave the way for a possible Bush-Olmert-Abbas summit.
US officials downplayed this, saying that while Olmert and Abbas might have had an interest in presenting Bush with a "gift," Hamas - without whom the cease-fire deal would not have been possible - had no interest in doing Bush any favors.
The US officials said even with the cease-fire, there were no plans at this time for a Bush-Olmert-Abbas summit in Jordan.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.