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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared split Tuesday on whether to accept a French proposal for a 48-hour suspension of the IDF offensive against Hamas to allow Paris the opportunity to mediate a cease-fire.
The idea for a 48-hour suspension was first raised by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in a phone call with Barak on Monday. Barak initially rejected the offer, but in a second conversation on Tuesday told Kouchner that he would reconsider and raise it in talks with Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
News of Barak's decision took the IDF - which continued to mass forces outside Gaza on Tuesday ahead of a planned ground operation - completely by surprise, and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi released a statement saying the IDF was not behind the move.
The defense establishment is suggesting that Israel use a suspension of operations to carefully study Hamas's intentions; whether the group is planning to escalate the violence by renewing attacks inside Israel or whether it will opt to stop its rocket attacks altogether.
Defense officials expressed skepticism that Hamas would abide by a two-day truce, and said it would instead use the opportunity to expand its rocket attacks. In this case, officials said, Israel's offer of a cease-fire and Hamas's rejection would grant the IDF a greater level of legitimacy for the second stage of the operation - a ground operation inside Gaza.
Furthermore, by agreeing to 48 hours of unilateral cease-fire, Israel would leave Hamas on edge as to when exactly it would launch the second phase of Operation Cast Lead. Also, inclement weather was predicted for Wednesday and Thursday - not optimal conditions for either ground or air assaults.
Despite the IDF disclaimer earlier Tuesday, there were different opinions within the security establishment, the officials said.
Officials in the Foreign Ministry said they had not seen any document spelling out the stages of a cease-fire that would begin with the 48-hour truce, and officials in the Prime Minister's Office said they were not aware of the proposal.
This appeared to be the first time since the beginning of the operation on Saturday that Olmert, Barak and Livni - who met Tuesday night to discuss the French suggestion as well as weigh the further steps in the operation - were not all on the same page.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said Olmert wanted "to keep the pressure up on Hamas."
After the four-hour meeting, Olmert's office issued a statement early Wednesday saying no details of the discussion would be made public because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
A Hamas spokesman said Tuesday evening that the group was conditioning a cease-fire on an opening of Gaza's borders. The spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, spoke after news broke of the Israeli defense officials' recommendation.
The Prime Minister's Office official said that so far Israel had not met with any surprises from Hamas, and that the assessments of how many missiles Hamas would fire on Israel - possibly as many as 200 a day - had never materialized.
"The assessments about what we would face were actually worse than the situation," the official said. "Things are going pretty much according to how we expected they would go."
Regarding the humanitarian cease-fire idea, the official said that "Israel will not accept a solution that is neither sustainable nor real, and that would ultimately be a mirage. We want a sustainable and real solution that entails freeing the southern part of the country from the fear of missile attacks."
According to the official, Hamas was "hit, and hit hard, but it has to come to the realization that continued rocket fire on Israel is much more painful for them than for us."
The official said the prime minister had no intention of allowing Hamas to regroup so it could come back and fire another day.
While Olmert is not keen on a lull in the operation now, Livni - according to diplomatic officials - is leaning toward following Barak's lead on the matter.
After four days of international action that was pretty much relegated to the issuing of statements - some harsher than others - diplomatic officials are bracing for a much higher international profile in the coming days.
This higher profile is expected to begin on Wednesday, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan begins a visit to the region that will take him to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. At this point, Erdogan, who has spoken out extremely harshly against the IDF campaign, is not expected to visit Israel.
According to the Turkish press, Hamas has contacted Ankara about the possibility of mediating a cease-fire with Israel.
Foreign Ministry officials said it was likely that a number of European leaders would flock to the region next week, after the New Year's break.
Likewise, Livni has been invited by the French to Paris early next week, but has not yet decided whether to make the trip.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Tuesday evening that he would meet Livni on Thursday in Paris. Sarkozy is also expected to come to the region on Monday to look for a way to end the crisis.
In addition, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana held a conference call and issued a statement in the name of the Middle East Quartet calling for an "immediate cease-fire that would be fully respected."
According to assessments in Jerusalem, part of the reason for a lack of more intensive European involvement now is division inside the EU regarding what policy to pursue. While countries such as Germany, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have issued very supportive statements, other countries - first and foremost Ireland and Luxembourg - have been critical of Israel.
Despite a highly critical British press, diplomatic officials said that London's position on the operation has not strayed very far from the normative parameters in Europe: an immediate cease-fire, the renewal of humanitarian aid and a reinvigorating of the diplomatic process.
France, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU until Thursday, called an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers in Paris Tuesday night to discuss the situation.
The Czech Republic will take the presidency from France on Thursday, and its Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg roundly defended Israel's actions in an interview with a Czech newspaper Tuesday.
Schwarzenberg, a staunch ally of the United States, said he would not support either side in the conflict, but work as a mediator.
According to Reuters, Schwarzenberg told the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes that Hamas had excluded itself from serious political debate due to its rocket attacks on Israel.
"Let us realize one thing: Hamas increased steeply the number of rockets fired at Israel since the cease-fire ended on December 19. That is not acceptable anymore," he said.
"Why am I one of the few that have expressed understanding for Israel?" Schwarzenberg was quoted as saying. "I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth."
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