US presses Israel on Gaza cease-fire

Defense official to 'Post': Hope is that Gaza quiet will enable Israel, PA to focus on reaching deal in 2008.

Sderot damage 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Sderot damage 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Pressure is picking up on Israel to reach a cease-fire deal with Hamas in the Gaza Strip ahead of US President George W. Bush's planned visit to Jerusalem in two weeks, defense officials told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, has been holding intensive talks with Egypt on a proposed cease-fire in the Gaza Strip being brokered by Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, according to the defense officials. There was increasing pressure from the US and Egypt to reach a deal before Bush's visit on May 14, the officials said, and Israel was making every effort to move forward with the deal, even though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had yet to formulate an official position on the matter. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit Israel next week. "There is a push to wrap up the deal before Bush's visit," a top defense official told the Post Sunday. "The hope is that quiet in Gaza will enable Israel and the PA to focus on reaching a peace deal by the end of the year." Suleiman has in the meantime postponed a planned visit to Israel until the beginning of next week, after he receives a final answer from the various Palestinian factions on whether they accept the terms of the proposed cease-fire together with Hamas. Suleiman is scheduled to receive a final answer from the factions on Wednesday and will then update Israel. "Assuming the factions accept the terms, Suleiman will likely visit Israel in the beginning of next week to finalize Israel's position," the top defense official said, warning that if Israel rejected the deal it could damage relations with Egypt and be interpreted as a blow to Suleiman's prestige. While the Defense Ministry is pursuing the cease-fire talks, senior IDF officers have voiced opposition to halting military operations against Hamas in Gaza. On Sunday, two Kassam rockets struck Sderot. One scored a direct hit on a home, causing extensive damages but no injuries. One of the more dominant voices comes from OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, who, the Post has learned, recently expressed fierce opposition to a cease-fire with Hamas, warning it would be used by the terrorist organization to rebuild its damaged infrastructure and to increase its arms smuggling under the Philadelphi Corridor from Sinai. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki, who held talks in Jerusalem Sunday with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and ministry director-general Aaron Abramovitch, said in Cairo a day earlier that Israel's "latest statements" on a cease-fire with Hamas should not be considered Israel's final word. In a statement, Zaki said that Israel "will make its position [on the proposed cease-fire with Hamas] clear following a series of closed-door meetings that will take place later." The government's position, repeated as a mantra by Olmert's spokesmen over the last week, is that Israel is not negotiating either directly or indirectly with Hamas, and that if Hamas wants a cease-fire it knows what it needs to do: stop all firing of Kassam rockets into Israel; stop terrorist attacks on Israelis anywhere; and stop the arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Zaki, according to the Egyptian statement, "played down Israel's initial rejection of the cease-fire as some sort of propaganda." Zaki, who is a close confidant of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said, "The cease-fire that Egypt has been seeking to achieve between the Palestinian and Israeli sides requires cooperation and real desire from the two sides." A senior official in the Foreign Ministry said Abramovitch told Zaki that it was essential to prevent Hamas's buildup in Gaza, and the terrorism emanating from the Strip. The official said that Zaki's visit was a reciprocal visit to one Abramovitch paid on him a few weeks ago. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz is expected to meet with Rice in Washington on Monday, a day before he takes part in the quarterly Israeli-American strategic dialogue. That day-long dialogue is once again expected to focus on the Iranian threat, and the ramifications of Teheran's nuclearization on the region. Mofaz will head the Israeli team, and his counterpart on the US side will be State Department Counselor Eliot Cohen, who has stepped in for Nicholas Burns, the recently retired under secretary for political affairs.