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Israel Pursues Ceasefire With Hamas

Prospects appear to have improved for a Middle East ceasefire. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, truce efforts come amid political turmoil in Israel.

An Israeli delegation is in Cairo to try to finalize an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Israel sent the delegation after the Security Cabinet backed down from a threat to launch a major military offensive in Gaza in response to daily Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he hopes truce efforts will succeed.

Barak, a former army chief, said he has fought in many wars, so before sending soldiers to battle it is a sacred duty to exhaust every effort for peace.

Israel is reluctant to invade Gaza fearing high casualties among Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians, and international condemnation.

Hamas says a ceasefire is not a done deal.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said the group could not agree to Israel's demand that it release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as part of the truce agreement unless Israel frees hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Shalit has been held for two years in Gaza, since he was kidnapped in a cross-border raid.

The truce efforts come amid growing pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who could be toppled by a corruption scandal.

Defense Minister Barak said the Labor Party, Mr. Olmert's senior coalition partner, would support an upcoming bill for early elections if the prime minister does not step down.

It was the second blow to Mr. Olmert in as many days. On Wednesday, his Kadima party began the process for primaries to replace him. Mr. Olmert's political survival is in doubt after an American businessman testified that he gave him envelopes stuffed with cash to support a lavish lifestyle.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Israelis believe that the Olmert government is too unstable to make any major decisions about war or peace.