Barak hints Gaza incursion imminent

Defense minister tells US delegation; expected to travel to Egypt Monday to discuss cease-fire deal.

Barak Im gonna kill you! (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Barak Im gonna kill you!
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Even as Defense Ministry officials said Sunday that Israel was likely to accept the Gaza Strip cease-fire deal brokered by Egypt, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a meeting with a high-level US congressional delegation, did not mention the cease-fire and talked instead about a possible large-scale military incursion. Participants in Barak's meeting with the Congressmen said they walked away from the discussion with an impression that an IDF operation was very much in the offing. In the meeting, which included US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Barak asked the members of the bipartisan congressional delegation to think how they would act if for seven years San Diego had been bombarded by rockets from Tijuana, just across the Mexican border. When asked during an interview with The Jerusalem Post afterward whether Israel would be justified in launching a widespread incursion into Gaza, Pelosi said that "Israel makes its own decisions about its own security. I would hope that it is something that could have been avoided by other means. Minister Barak was very direct in his presentation to us about what the possibilities were." Barak is scheduled to talk about the terms of the Egyptian-proposed cease-fire during talks in Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the architect of the proposal. Barak is expected to urge Egypt to change its cease-fire proposal to a two-stage deal that would first include a cessation of terrorist activity and IDF military operations, and then an opening of the border crossings into Gaza in exchange for the release of kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, defense officials said Sunday. Under Cairo's original proposal, the border crossings were to be opened immediately, along with the end of terrorist activity and the cessation of IDF action, and Schalit was not involved in the deal. Officials said Barak planned to present Mubarak and Suleiman with a list of conditions that Israel had set for its acceptance of the cease-fire with Hamas, including an increase in Egyptian efforts to stop weapons-smuggling into Gaza along the Philadelphi Corridor. The officials said that Israel was likely to accept the cease-fire deal even if it did not include Schalit's immediate release. An Egyptian promise to expedite its mediation over Schalit's release could, the officials said, also be considered progress and constitute a reason to accept the truce. In addition to meeting Mubarak and Suleiman, Barak will meet later in the day with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and then have dinner with Egyptian Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi. The Turks have been active in recent months trying to mediate between Israel and Syria. Suleiman met Sunday with Meretz MK Yossi Beilin, and Beilin - in a statement put out after the meeting - said Suleiman had told him he could set the date for the start of the truce on Monday, if Barak came to Sharm with Israeli approval to the current terms. Beilin also said that if Israel agreed to the list of Palestinian prisoners, Schalit could be included in the deal. Suleiman said that due to Israel's opposition to Palestinian names on the list, negotiations to bring about Schalit's release could only begin after a cease-fire was reached. Defense officials said that it was unlikely that Barak would finalize the deal during his meetings on Monday, but that he would make Israel's position clear, including the terms for its acceptance. "Barak will stress the importance of Schalit being released as part of the deal," a senior official said. "The release may not take place immediately and could be a second stage for the deal." Barak's meeting with the Egyptian president will take place a day after Mubarak met separately with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni within the framework of the World Economic Forum, as well as with Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. "Hamas is a mutual enemy of Israel and Egypt," Netanyahu told Mubarak. "Israel has no choice but to topple the Hamas regime." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting that the current situation in the Gaza Strip "cannot continue," and we are "very close to a critical point regarding the situation" there. He did not let on, however, whether the critical point was a decision to step up military action or accept an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire. "Suffice it to say that we are convinced that it is absolutely impossible to let the situation in the South go on as it has in recent months," Olmert said. "The critical point regarding how matters will be conducted is very close. Of course, our mission is to see to it that the residents of the South live tranquil and secure lives without being under constant threat as they have for a very long period." Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, meanwhile, urged Olmert to convene a security cabinet meeting to discuss the situation in Gaza. "Ashkelon has turned into a theater of terror, and the [security] cabinet still hasn't convened," Yishai said during the meeting. "There are indications that Beersheba will be at risk of rocket strikes, and we need to hold a discussion about this." In a related development, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who threatened to resign if an agreement were not reached within six months, said that a deadlock in peace negotiations would strengthen extremists and would likely bring the Middle East back to "the tragedy of 2000 that followed the failure at Camp David." Beilin told Abbas that now was the time for the believers in a two-state solution to persuade the doubters in their nations that solutions existed and could be implemented, even at the eleventh hour. Gil Hoffman and Jonny Hadi contributed to this report.