Israel has agreed not to launch a ground operation in Gaza for at least 24 hours, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for the region to help broker a ceasefire between Jerusalem and Hamas.
“We have decided to give the diplomatic efforts a very serious chance,” a government official close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told The Times of Israel Tuesday morning, a few hours after the country’s top nine ministers convened to discuss the further course of Operation Pillar of Defense.
“We’re giving a chance to diplomacy. We’re giving it time, but this time is not unlimited,” the official said, adding that “we’ll know in a day or two” whether Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Clinton and other international players currently in or traveling to Israel will be successful in achieving a ceasefire.
“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Netanyahu told German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle Tuesday morning in Jerusalem. “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 also told Westerwelle that he thinks Germany can play a constructive role in the brokering of a long-term ceasefire and in preventing arms smuggling into Gaza. “As you know, we seek a diplomatic unwinding to this, through the discussions of ceasefire. But if the firing continues we will have to take broader action, and we won’t hesitate to do so.”
“The idea of a ground invasion is temporarily on hold,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. “But the military is preparing, so if and when an order [to enter Gaza] is given it can move as quickly as possible,” the official said. In the mean time, the Israeli Air Force will continue to strike terrorist targets in Gaza, he added.
Israel’s inner cabinet of its nine most senior ministers met until nearly 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, and reportedly decided that refraining from a ground offensive, as US President and Barack Obama and other Western leaders had urged, would give Jerusalem greater legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
Obama, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and other Western leaders expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself in light of ongoing rocket fire but urged the government not to escalate the situation by sending ground troops into Gaza.
However, the American ambassador in Tel Aviv, Dan Shapiro, told Army Radio that there is no US administration veto on an Israeli ground operation in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Westerwelle met with Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres on Tuesday in Jerusalem. Westerwelle told both leaders that Berlin stands beside the Israeli government’s actions. “Israel has the right to defend itself and its citizens, and it is the responsibility of Hamas to halt the rocket attacks on Israel,” he told Peres.
Support for Israel in the current conflict is not only the view of Germany, “but also of the European Union as reflected in statements of EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday,” he added.
In his meeting with Netanyahu, Westerwelle welcomed the Israeli decision to hold off on a ground invasion. “Of course we now have to consider and discuss how a ceasefire is possible. But there is one key condition for everything else, and that is the stop of the missile attacks against Israel,” Westerwelle said.
Egypt plays a central role in the negotiations for a truce but “Germany is ready to help and to support and we will do our best in the interest of our friends in Israel,” Westerwelle said. “Let’s do our best that a ceasefire is possible.”
United Nations Sectary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is currently in Egypt and scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday, called on both sides to halt fire immediately.
“Further escalating the situation will put the entire region at risk,” he said Tuesday morning in Cairo, sitting next to Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi. An Israeli ground operation “would only result in further tragedy,” Ban said. He and Arabi “share a deep concern about the appalling rising cost in human lives” in Gaza,” Ban reportedly said.
Clinton, who was with Obama in Cambodia for the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting and the East Asia Summit, is scheduled to arrive in Israel late Tuesday.
It is widely expected that Clinton will engage in talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority officials and push for an immediate ceasefire, but she will not meet with Hamas representatives.
In the past few days, she has spoken with the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, France and Turkey, as well as with Jordanian King Abdullah, Qatari Prime Minister Hamid bin Jasim Al Thani and Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil.