Israel caving to pressure, or isolating Hamas?

Israel has expressed a willingness to discuss a new cease-fire in its campaign against Hamas in Gaza.  Diplomats will arrive in Cairo later today to confer on the war touched off by Hamas’ rejection of a months-long truce and their missile and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians.  The signal may indicate a retreat on Israel’s pursuit of Hamas — or just a PR campaign to demonstrate openness to diplomacy:

Officials here said a high-ranking Israeli delegation was scheduled to arrive in Egypt Wednesday to discuss the possibilities of a cease-fire in the Jewish state’s 12-day assault on the Gaza Strip, significantly ratcheting up Israel’s public diplomacy as pressure to halt its offensive grows.

Israel’s military Wednesday also allowed what it called a three-hour “recess in offensive operations” to allow humanitarian supplies and food to be distributed throughout the densely populated territory, where approximately 670 Palestinians have been killed and approximately 3,000 wounded since Israel’s military attacks started on Dec. 27.

Israel’s cabinet was discussing Wednesday afternoon whom the government would send to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss a more permanent cessation of hostilities. It was unclear whether any government minister would travel to the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh, or whether the delegation would only include a high-ranking army officer who has been spearheading the indirect negotiations with Egyptians about Hamas.

The BBC says that Israel has accepted “truce principles”, but with the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority and not Hamas:

Israel wants to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel and to stop Hamas smuggling weapons into Gaza via Egypt, while Hamas says any ceasefire deal must include an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israel said it was not sure how long the diplomatic process would take and that a working arms embargo on Hamas was needed.

Little official detail has been given about the French-Egyptian proposal, which is backed by the US and UN, but diplomats say it centres around measures to halt weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, coupled with moves to ease the blockade.

In a statement released on Wednesday, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed “the acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority” of the truce plan. The statement did not mention Hamas.

We can draw a few conclusions to this effort.  First, the Israelis may have achieved all they expected from this operation and are ready to conclude it.   That wouldn’t necessarily be the obvious conclusion, though, as they have Gaza locked in a vise grip and have the opportunity to smoke out and destroy Hamas.  They won’t find themselves in this position again for a while, and one would expect the Israelis to take full advantage of it.  However, that will require a large amount of destruction and collateral damage, and the total destruction of Hamas might be impossible anyway, and the IDF may have reached the threshold of diminishing returns.

Next, the French and Egyptians appear to have gotten the message about Hamas.  The communique appears to go out of its way to exclude Hamas, and the truce principles agreement comes from Hamas’ political opponents/enemies in Fatah.  They may want to smooth the path to restore the authority of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza after three years of Hamas rule, at a time when Gazans may finally welcome the change.

Unless the Israelis want to reoccupy Gaza, they need some sort of political resolution to the conflict.  Their biggest worry is the Iranian proxy Hamas.  If they can get Hamas out of Gaza and the West Bank, that will be a huge victory for Israel and for the Palestinians in the long run.  It will be an even bigger defeat for Iran, which is why the French and Egyptians want to make these arrangements.