The Israeli government has delayed for the next 24 hours any decision on whether to order ground troops into Gaza, according to officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to allow more time for diplomacy before the decision, the officials said after a meeting of the Forum of Nine senior ministers at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Monday night.
However, the move should not be seen as Israel walking back its threat to invade Gaza. A senior Israeli diplomatic official told Israel Radio on Tuesday that an Israel Defense Forces ground invasion "is closer than ever, even though the operation's goals have been achieved."
Egypt, which is mediating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, "is not providing the goods," the senior official said, adding that Hamas was seeking a diplomatic achievement after seven days of fighting.
"Israel is seeking a cease-fire that will last for years; we're done with cease-fires that last one or two weeks," a close associate of Netanyahu’s, former MK and Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, said Tuesday.
Speaking on Channel 10, Hanegbi, a former chairman of the Knesset's powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the IDF had built up the necessary force for a ground invasion and was ready to use that force if ordered to do so.
"There are thousands of troops on the Gaza border,” Hanegbi said. “To give the ground operation legitimacy, Netanyahu is giving diplomacy time to work. The other side, Hamas, fires rockets to kill and terrorize. I don't see a way to rationalize with a fanatic death-cult terrorist organization. What needs to be done is to confront and defeat the enemy. I don't know any other way but the way of force with Hamas."
Hanegbi said Israel had showed restraint over the past three days in an effort to shore up international legitimacy.
"Hamas is suffering, and Egypt and Turkey have realized that the time has come for them to save Hamas. That's what they're doing in Gaza now. Israel cannot rely on Egyptian mediation," Hanegbi said."There are many things that we can do that we haven't done yet, like striking vital infrastructure in Gaza. Other powers would have done this already."
Momentum toward a cease-fire gathered pace Tuesday as both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Israel and Egypt to advance a negotiated settlement that would put an end to the fighting, now in its seventh day. The White House said Clinton was going to the Middle East for talks in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo to try to calm the conflict. An Israeli source said she was expected to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Netanyahu and his top ministers debated their next moves in a meeting that lasted into the early hours of Tuesday. Netanyahu met with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Jerusalem late Tuesday morning, saying that Hamas and the other terror organizations in Gaza "have no compunction whatsoever" at firing on Israeli civilians. "For us, every time there are civilian casualties, that’s an operational failure. For them, every time there are civilian casualties, that’s an operational success. So there’s a marked distinction and the people of Israel can’t long tolerate this kind of situation where our cities are under constant rocket attacks. I prefer a diplomatic solution. I hope that we can get one but if not, we have every right to defend ourselves with other means and we shall use them," Netanyahu told Westerwelle.
In light of the international pressure to stop the fighting, the Israeli ministers were leaning toward accepting a cease-fire deal and not expanding the operation. Israel believes that at this point its military achievements are not sufficient, and it would be no surprise if Hamas managed to end this round of fighting with a parting rocket shot at Tel Aviv. However, Israel might have to settle for accepting its achievements thus far: the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas' military wing, and the destruction of most of Hamas' long-range missile capability.
"Before deciding on a ground invasion, the prime minister intends to exhaust the diplomatic move in order to see if a long-term cease-fire can be achieved," a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said after the meeting.
Cease-fire talks continued in Cairo with almost all issues in dispute, including which side is to cease firing first. Israel insists that the first stage of any dialogue is a cessation of violence by Hamas. Israel wants an agreement from Egypt, with the backing of the U.S., that Hamas will agree to enforce the cease-fire on other terror groups in Gaza, ending rocket fire as well as violence against Israeli forces along the border fence.
In addition, Israel wants a commitment that terror groups not perpetrate terror attacks against Israel from within the Sinai Peninsula. Israel is also demanding from Egypt that it work to stop arms smuggling along the 14-kilometer stretch of border between Gaza and Egypt in the Rafah area.
For its part, Hamas is demanding that Israel be the first to cease firing as it believes Israel was the party responsible for starting the latest round of fighting. Hamas has rejected an Israel proposal for a 24-hour cease-fire, after which negotiations would be held for 36 hours over the terms of a truce agreement. Hamas also demands a complete cessation of Israeli offensive action, including a commitment by Israel not to target its people. Hamas is also demanding a lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and the opening of border crossings. Israel refuses to agree to these conditions and has made it clear that if it has intelligence about "ticking bomb" targets planning attacks against Israel, the targets will be attacked.
On Monday night, CNN reported that three U.S. Navy amphibious warships were returning to the eastern Mediterranean to remain on standby if they were needed to assist Americans leaving Israel in coming days, according to two U.S. officials who spoke to the network. "The officials stressed an evacuation remains an extremely remote possibility and the Obama administration is not currently planning for one. Americans who wish to leave the region now are able to do so using commercial airlines," CNN reported.
Ban on Tuesday called for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict, saying an Israeli ground operation in the Palestinian enclave would be a "dangerous escalation" that had to be avoided. Speaking at a news conference in Cairo after talks with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, Ban said he supported Egyptian-led efforts to bring an end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas.
"Immediate steps are needed by all to avoid a further escalation, including a ground operation which will only result in further tragedy," he said. "My message is clear: all sides must halt fire immediately. Further escalating the situation will put the entire region at risk ... I will urge the Israeli leadership to end the violence. We all must recognize that Israel has legitimate security concerns that must be respected in accordance with international law, but a ground operation would be a dangerous escalation."
A delegation of nine Arab ministers, led by the Egyptian foreign minister, were due in Gaza later on Tuesday in a further signal of heightened Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil told Reuters a cease-fire was possible: "I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation [means] it is very difficult to predict."
After Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal laid out demands in Cairo that Israel take the first step in restoring calm, and warned Netanyahu that a ground war in Gaza could wreck his re-election prospects in January, a senior Israeli official denied a Hamas assertion that the prime minister had asked for a truce.
"Whoever started the war must end it," Mashaal said, referring to Israel's assassination from the air on Wednesday of Hamas' Gaza military chief, a move that followed a scaling up of rocket fire onto Israeli towns over several weeks.
An official close to Netanyahu told Reuters: "We would prefer to see a diplomatic solution that would guarantee the peace for Israel's population in the south. If that is possible, then a ground operation would no longer be required."