Ministers split on 'hudna' offer

Hamas proposes to discuss truce; Israeli official: Quiet only after end to rockets and military.

Hamas body 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas body 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
In a role-reversal, Kadima's most right- and left-wing ministers, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and Vice Premier Haim Ramon, exchanged sides on Wednesday in the debate over whether Israel should negotiate a temporary cease-fire with Hamas. The debate started after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told a Channel 2 reporter Tuesday night that he was prepared to negotiate an end to the rocket attacks and Israeli strikes. Army Radio reported that Haniyeh had earlier relayed the proposal to a senior government official via a third party. Responding to Haniyeh's offer, Mofaz said in media interviews that Israel had already engaged in contacts with Hamas through mediators on issues like the effort to bring home kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit, so there was no reason not to do the same to end the rocket attacks. "If Hamas would agree through a third party to stop the terrorist attacks while we stop the assassinations, as long as all the terrorist groups would be part of the deal, I say we can agree to such mediation," Mofaz said. Senior government officials indicated that an end to rocket fire from Gaza alone would not be enough to bring about a halt to IDF action in the Gaza Strip - Hamas would also have to stop building up its military capabilities. "Israel cannot allow a situation where Hamas is free to build a formidable military machine in the Gaza Strip," one government official said in reference to the continuing smuggling of arms into the area. "Israel will continue to defend its citizens; that is our obligation as a government." Sources in the Prime Minister's Office, however, denied reports that any messages regarding a truce (or "hudna" in Arabic) had been passed on from Hamas. "No one knows of any message from Hamas," one official said. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said Hamas was "playing games, and the authentic Hamas was the Hamas we saw on Shabbat celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of the organization, where all we saw was hatred, extremism and support for terrorism." Regev reiterated Israel's position that Israel would not deal with Hamas until it changed and accepted the international community's three benchmarks: forswearing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements. "Our partner for discussions on the Palestinian side is the legitimate Palestinian government," Regev said. "Hamas has excluded itself from talks by its continued rejection of the international community's benchmarks." The EU's envoy to the Middle East, Marc Otte, told The Jerusalem Post that he did not see a military solution to the situation in the Gaza Strip, and that both Israel and the Palestinians would suffer from a widespread Israeli incursion. He labeled the Haniyeh and Mofaz comments "trial balloons" that offered a better option. Mofaz's associates, meanwhile, said the minister's statements were far from agreeing to begin diplomatic negotiations with Hamas. They said they were surprised to see the Kadima ministers closest to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lining up to attack Mofaz from the Right. "If you're attacked by both the Right and the Left, that means you're safely in the center," a Mofaz associate said. Minister-without-Portfolio Ami Ayalon and National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer also said they would not rule out talks with Hamas as long as key conditions were met. Ramon said he was surprised by Hamas's overtures, because Haniyeh had said at a mass rally in Gaza on Saturday that he would never recognize Israel. Ramon said that agreeing to a temporary cease-fire would allow Hamas to strengthen itself. "Hamas's calls for a mutual deescalation do not stem from a desire for a cease-fire," Ramon told Army Radio. "Hamas controls the Strip, and with a single order it can end the firing of Kassam rockets at Israel. We must keep up military pressure, step up the sanctions and thus undermine Hamas's rule in Gaza." President Shimon Peres, meanwhile, called Haniyeh's overture a "pathetic and misleading attempt to divert international attention away from the crimes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad." "If Hamas and Islamic Jihad stop firing rockets at our women and children, Israel will immediately hold its fire, so there is no need for negotiations," Peres said. "Hamas does not give hope to [the Palestinian] people. Its sole purpose is to sow destruction, bloodshed and war, and the moment it ceases its violent crimes, quiet will once again reign in our region." Likud MK Silvan Shalom, who as foreign minister pressed the world to denote Hamas as a terrorist organization, said talking to Hamas now would make Israel look hypocritical. "When the entire world is boycotting Hamas, should we be the ones to talk to them?" Shalom said. "It would be a terrible mistake. We need to do everything in order to bring about a cessation in Kassam attacks - not through dialogue, but through action." National Union-National Religious Party MK Arye Eldad similarly expressed his dismay at Mofaz's proposal. "I am surprised that Mofaz, who gave us several cease-fires in the past, hasn't learned the lessons from what the people of Israel got in return for those cease-fires," Eldad said. "Mofaz should deal with the faltering issues in his ministry instead of preaching about security issues over which he failed in the past."