Israel to join talks in Egypt as troops close on Gaza City

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2009 

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials said on Tuesday that they'd send a top negotiator to Cairo on Thursday for what they described as "decisive" talks, but Israel's military advances in the Gaza Strip appeared to be outpacing diplomacy.

Israel is expected to send top negotiator Amos Gilad to Cairo for indirect talks with Hamas, led by Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief. Gilad, a defense ministry official, led Israel's original Gaza cease-fire talks and is key to any deal taking shape.

Gilad had been expected to head to Cairo earlier, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's talks with Hamas faltered, apparently because Hamas balked at tough conditions to stop future weapons smuggling.

Should Gilad return without significant progress, it is more likely that Israel would intensify its military operation in Gaza.

So far, nearly 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died since the campaign began Dec. 27.

Keeping up the pressure on Hamas, Israeli forces are methodically closing in on the heart of Gaza City, where soldiers are facing stronger resistance from Palestinian militants. On Tuesday, Israeli units pushed to within a mile of central Gaza City before pulling back.

So far, Israeli forces have taken lighter-than-expected losses. Nine Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting in Gaza, while the Israeli military estimates that more than 300 Palestinian fighters have been killed.

Nearly 1,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes in the past 18 days, according to Gaza health officials. More than 40 percent of those killed were women and children.

International pressure on Israel is building for an end to the fighting, although a new poll shows that U.S. public opinion is solidly behind Israel.

An Ipsos/McClatchy poll on Tuesday showed that 44 percent of Americans blamed Hamas for the current conflict, and only 14 percent blame Israel. Also, 57 percent of Americans thought that Hamas had used "excessive" force, whereas 44 percent thought that Israel had used "appropriate" force.

As part of a renewed push to bring the fighting to a halt, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew to the Middle East with renewed appeals for Israel and Hamas to agree to U.N. calls for an immediate cease-fire.

Israel and Hamas rebuffed the U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution passed last week.

Israeli leaders have vowed to expand military operations in Gaza unless Hamas ends its rocket attacks on southern Israel and new steps are taken to ensure that Palestinian militants can't dig tunnels between Gaza and Egypt to smuggle weapons.

Hamas leaders said they'd end their attacks when Israel re-opens its borders with Gaza and allows supplies to flow back into the isolated Mediterranean strip.

If diplomats are unable to bridge the significant differences, Israel has threatened to bring its fight into the heart of the Gaza Strip.

"Israel cannot end this without a cease-fire and an end to the weapons smuggling," said Yossi Alpher, a former official with Israel's Mossad spy agency. "Otherwise the Israeli government will have a hard time explaining itself — and it will be a blow to Israeli deterrence."

The deepening military campaign is raising increasing concerns that Israeli politicians don't have a game plan for ensuring that they'll come out of Gaza with a decisive victory.

"The synchronization between the political and military levels is not what it should be," said Alpher, co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, an online Middle East political journal.

Haggai Alon, who was chief policy adviser to Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, said the process of securing a truce is so complex that the military should ease up and allow negotiations to play out.

If Israel presses forward with a deadly and devastating new phase of the military campaign, Alon said, its strategy could backfire by increasing popular Palestinian support for Hamas.

"Hamas is exactly on the verge of being a hero, or being defeated," Alon said.

Alon, Alpher and other analysts evoked Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon as a cautionary tale of political miscalculation.

Since launching airstrikes in Gaza last month, Israeli leaders claimed that they'd learned from the mistakes made during the 2006 war by implementing a methodical, well-planned campaign and laying out clear tactical goals.

However, Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, said it isn't yet clear that Israeli politicians are avoiding the pitfalls of Lebanon.

"The army has learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War," Inbar said. "But these are tactical. We need strategic directives. The politicians have to make a decision."

In a highly critical essay on the current conflict, Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that Olmert, Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni all have failed to explain what the military operation would do beyond hurting Hamas and curbing rocket fire from Gaza.

While such steps might destabilize Hamas in the short-term, Cordesman said the Israeli approach could end up undermining moderate Palestinian leaders, boosting support for Hamas and undercutting diplomatic moves by the incoming Obama administration.

"As we have seen all too clearly from U.S. mistakes, any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory," Cordesman wrote. "If this is all that Olmert, Livni, and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends."

(Churgin, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Jerusalem.)

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