Barak Ravid
January 7, 2009 - 1:00am

Israel's security cabinet on Wednesday postponed a vote on whether to expand the Israel Defense Forces 12-day-old offensive in the Gaza Strip, political sources said.

The sources said ministers discussed whether to implement the "third stage" of an operation launched on Dec. 27 but decided to defer the decision on whether to approve it to an undisclosed date.

Israel's political leadership gathered in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning to discuss widening the ground offensive in the Gaza Strip at a time when most of the aims of the operation have been met.

In parallel, international diplomatic efforts are continuing, centering on an initiative to deploy an international force of combat engineers that would deal with the tunnels along the Philadelphi Route. The force would work in coordination with a naval force that would patrol the Gaza Strip shores.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told French President Nicolas Sarkozy during his visit here Monday that "promises made during the [six months of] cease-fire for dealing with [Hamas arms] smuggling were not kept."

On Tuesday night the Israeli troika - Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak - met to discuss the the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip and diplomatic developments.

It would appear that the next stage of the operation will include an even more extensive ground incursion into built-up areas, and this will be at the center of the cabinet meeting this morning.

Meanwhile, the international diplomatic effort being led by the United States, France, Britain and Egypt is still focused on an initiative to deploy an international force of experts and troops that would assist Egyptian authorities in dealing with the tunnel system Hamas has built along the Philadelphi Route, which borders Sinai.

According to a political source in Jerusalem, France and the U.S. are working hard on Egypt to get it to agree to the initiative.

"If a solution is found, we will have no problem in immediately bringing the operation to an end," the Israeli source said.

Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, told Israel's Channel 2 television on Tuesday that "there will either be a reliable mechanism for preventing smuggling or the operation will continue."

Monday night Sarkozy presented Olmert with the proposal he had discussed with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The proposal for the deployment of a force of international experts would follow an Egyptian request for assistance.

The authors of the proposal are taking great pains to preserve Egyptian sovereignty and stress the advisory and collaborative role that would be assigned to the international deployment.

The same Israeli source said that Egypt is still reluctant to publicly acknowledge the tunnels problem in Rafah. Egypt claims that more than 300 tunnels have been destroyed during the past year, in spite of the fact that they complain not to have received the specialized equipment promised by the Americans for the task.

Talks are also being held on establishing a Palestinian oversight mechanism on the Gaza side of the border.

Egypt has also pointed out that the long-range rockets smuggled into the Strip were brought in by sea, leading France to propose the creation of a naval element that would patrol the border between the Strip and Sinai.

Egypt denies Hamas comment

Meanwhile, Egypt denied on Tuesday a report that President Hosni Mubarak had told European ministers on a peace mission that Hamas must not be allowed to win the ongoing war in Gaza.

Haaretz reported on Tuesday that Mubarak made the comment on Monday to a visiting European Union delegation, which included several European foreign ministers. "If an Israeli newspaper published comments such as these, non-attributed, from a closed meeting, how credible can it be?" said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki.


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