New drive for Israel, Hamas cease-fire deal
With no official agreement, Israel's Kadima Party could falter in Tuesday's vote.
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If a deal isn't in place when Israelis go to the polls Tuesday, the ruling Kadima Party could take a significant hit. The centrist party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is already in second place in polls behind the hawkish Likud party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing politician who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Ms. Livni and Mr. Netanyahu are the two main contenders for the country's new premiership.
But the left-leaning Labor Party, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, could lose the most political ground as a result of the war – which came to an inconclusive halt Jan. 18 after both sides declared unilateral cease-fires – as many Israelis blame the "peaceniks" for not dealing with Hamas rockets on southern Israel much sooner.
"Barak really wants to get a cease-fire, as well as Livni, because having a unilateral cease-fire doesn't really mean much. If Hamas continues to shoot on election day, it doesn't look very good, and the fact that there is no quiet in the south is one of the forces pushing the electorate to the right," says Efraim Inbar, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
"The cease-fire is important to us and is important to Hamas, because they don't want to have to keep confronting Israel militarily," he adds. "A long cease-fire is an indirect arrangement that saves face for everyone and is in everyone's interest. We can insist that we don't deal with Hamas, but we do deal with Hamas via Egypt. And Egypt likes it because it reinforces their centrality in the Middle East. It's a game everyone likes to play."
Hamas, for its part, faces the prospect of having to deal with a Likud government that could take an even harder line on Gaza than Kadima. On Saturday, Salah al-Bardawil, a senior Hamas official and head of the Cairo truce talks delegation, said that an "honorable agreement" would be reached in the coming days.
Terms of a cease-fire deal
The diplomatic push in Egypt to arrive at a viable plan has indeed electrified the final stretch of elections for Israel's 120-seat parliament, showing the extent to which last month's brutal but inconclusive war continues to hang over decisionmakers and their political futures.
Some specifics of an Egyptian-negotiated cease-fire deal began to emerge over the weekend, holding out the possibility of Israel and Hamas reaching an 18-month truce that would include a major prisoner swap. Hamas would release a kidnapped Israeli soldier, Sgt. Gilad Shalit (promoted from corporal since his capture), in exchange for a large number of Palestinian prisoners – anywhere from 400 to 1,400, according to numerous, unconfirmed reports.
As part of this agreement, Israel would open various crossings into Gaza, the site of a devastating three-week war last month that ended with many humanitarian tragedies and few clear victories.
Hamas and allied Palestinian guerrilla groups have continued to launch rockets into southern Israel, and Israel has continued to bomb targets in Gaza, including tunnels for smuggling as well as militants it says are responsible for rocket launchings. One rocket launched from Gaza landed in southern Ashkelon, along Israel's coast, Sunday, and a Qassam rocket hit a parking lot in the Negev, setting cars on fire.