New drive for Israel, Hamas cease-fire deal

With no official agreement, Israel's Kadima Party could falter in Tuesday's vote.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP
Strike: An Israeli man at the site where a rocket, fired by Gaza militants, hit the Kibbutz Nir-Am in southern Israel on Sunday.

Less than 48 hours before parliamentary elections here, the drive to reach a lasting cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel following their 22-day war is taking on new urgency.

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.

All of which underscores the importance of reaching a real cease-fire deal, as opposed to a shorter-term verbal agreement to stop shooting.

Can a new quiet emerge?

A six-month-long "period of calm" – called a tahdiya in Arabic and regia in Hebrew – came to a deadly end last Dec. 19. Hamas decided it did not want to continue the cease-fire, it said, because Israel had not kept a promise to ease its blockade on Gaza's various crossings. Now, there seems to be an interest on both sides in having a year-and-a-half of quiet, even if it doesn't functionally bring them closer to a real peace deal.

"There are positive signs that in the next few days we will reach an understanding on a truce and a partial reopening of crossing points," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told Agence France-Presse.

Though 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the Gaza war, some in Israel saw little success in the Israeli operation, arguing that the army should have "gone all the way" to topple Hamas, and that it waited too long to respond to rockets on southern Israel. The 22-day operation in Gaza neither ended that rocket fire, nor saw the return of Sergeant Shalit, who was snatched from inside Israel in 2006.

Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, tried to temper the public's expectations of an impending deal by saying that the torrent of news of a cease-fire was "overblown" and "not helpful." His spokesman, Mark Regev, said that some of the reports were "speculative."

The Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, based in London, reported Sunday that Israel has agreed to release jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as part of Israel's efforts to free Shalit. Mr. Barghouti, jailed by Israel in 2002 on charges of murdering Israeli civilians and soldiers, is considered one of the most popular West Bank popular leaders in Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Al-Hayat also reported that Israel had agreed to release 350 of the 372 prisoners on a list presented by Hamas.

Ongoing humanitarian issues

Meanwhile, aid and rehabilitation efforts in Gaza moved in slow motion in recent days, and looked likely to continue to do so. Part of what is holding up the agreement, says one Hamas official who asked not to be named, was Hamas's demand – and Israel's refusal – to allow the import of heavier material such as cement and piping. Hamas says those items are needed for rebuilding, and Israeli officials say that they are concerned heavy materials will be used to replenish supplies of rockets.

In addition, Hamas remains in conflict with the international community amid complaints that aid shipments continue to be seized by gunmen once they reach Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main UN group working in Gaza, said over the weekend that it was suspending aid deliveries to needy Palestinian following the seizure of 10 trucks of food by Hamas.

The agency said it was still waiting for the delivery – about 200 tons of rice and flour – to be returned, following a statement by Hamas that it had been taken by mistake.

It was the second time in a week that Hamas members had commandeered aid supplies: 3,500 blankets and 400 food parcels were seized from UNRWA at gunpoint on Tuesday, the UN agency said.

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