Wednesday, 14 January 2009

U.S., Israel in ceasefire spat

Wednesday, January 14th 2009

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York


An Israeli airstrike as seen in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

The friendship between Jerusalem and Washington came under unusual strain Tuesday after Israel's prime minister bragged of ordering President Bush around - and a red-faced State Department slapped him down.

As Israeli troops tightened their hold on Gaza City, fighting block by block amid signs Hamas might be closer to surrender, a behind-the-scenes battle was raging in diplomatic corridors.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bragged Monday that he made Bush order Secretary of State Rice to abstain from a UN ceasefire resolution she had worked hard to help draft.

"I said, 'Get me President Bush on the phone,'" Olmert said. "They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care: 'I need to talk to him now.' They got him off the podium ... I told him, 'You can't vote in favor.'"

Olmert crowed that Rice was "left pretty shamed."

Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said that Olmert's account was "just 100% totally completely not true" and suggested the Israeli government might want to correct the record.

McCormack said Rice never supported the resolution.

When reporters asked why she spent three days working on a resolution she didn't support, McCormack accused them of "flagellum equus mortuus" - Latin for beating a dead horse.

A transcript of Bush's 27-minute speech at a Philadelphia school Thursday shows no interruption.

Meanwhile in Gaza, there were signs that Hamas was begining to cave.

At talks in Cairo, there were reports that Hamas would agree to Turkish troops patrolling the Hamas smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border - a key condition set by Israel for a ceasefire.

Much was made of the "frightened" demeanor of Ismail Haniya, Hamas' Gaza political leader, in a video where he said, "Hamas will cooperate with any initiative that will bring about an end to the aggression ... We will react to any such initiative positively."

More than 950 Palestinians have been killed since Operation Cast Lead began Dec. 27. The Israeli Defense Forces says about half were known Hamas operatives.

"Hamas has been badly hit, in terms of losses in manpower including some top commanders, and also in terms of property, infrastructure, weapons caches and staging areas," said Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF's top general.

He also said Hamas suicide bombers were dressing in IDF uniforms and that Hamas was forcing Palestinian civilians to act as human shields.

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