- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

The United States and Israel signed an agreement Friday to help stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, a deal that expands U.S.-Israeli military cooperation and could bolster efforts to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas before the Bush administration leaves office.

Israeli officials said a cease-fire could be announced as early as Saturday.

In Jerusalem, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said, “I hope we are entering the endgame, and that our goal of sustained and durable quiet in the south is about to be attained.”

More than 1,000 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died in the three-week conflict that began when Israel retaliated for the firing of rockets by the militant Hamas movement at Israeli towns.

Under the “memorandum of understanding” signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Washington, the United States offered to train and equip Egyptian security forces in counter-smuggling techniques to block Hamas from rearming by bringing in weapons from Egypt overland or through underground tunnels.

The agreement also commits the United States to work with its NATO allies to cooperate with Israel on the interdiction of ships carrying suspected explosives or weaponry to Gaza. The cooperation would extend from the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, enhancing cooperation with U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.

The arrangement appears similar to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a Bush administration program aimed at interdicting shipments of weapons or components of weapons of mass destruction. The author of that plan, former Undersecretary of State John Bolton, told The Washington Times, “The Proliferation Security Initiative was directed at weapons of mass destruction. But the principle of interdicting weapons to terrorist groups certainly follows from PSI, and PSI could provide a workable model.”

Ms. Rice also made the comparison, saying, “This we foresee as a part of broader international effort on information sharing, on using some of the aspects that we’ve learned through, for instance, the PSI of how to deal with weapons shipments and how to deal with supply lines.”

The agreement “provides a series of steps that the United States and Israel will take to stem the flow of weapons and explosives into Gaza,” Ms. Rice said. “The United States is reaching out to its partners as well. And together, the steps that we and other members of the international community can take will contribute to a durable cease-fire.”

She said that Mrs. Livni, who flew to Washington Friday morning, “is going to pursue similar efforts with our European colleagues” from Britain, Germany and France.

“The United States will accelerate its efforts to provide logistical and technical assistance and to train and equip regional security forces in countersmuggling tactics, working towards augmenting its existing assistance programs,” said the memorandum, which also includes military and intelligence cooperation.

Mrs. Livni said the two allies have “an understanding that needs to be translated into concrete actions.”

The Bush administration has supported Israel’s argument that, for its offensive in Gaza to end and be considered successful, Hamas must be denied the ability to resupply itself with rockets and other weapons. Both Israel and the United States blame the militant group for provoking the fighting by refusing to extend a previous truce negotiated by Egypt. Hamas counters that Israel maintained a siege on Gaza that prevented normal movement of people and goods.

“We are hoping that as the elements of durability begin to come into place, that the need for continued operations can cease,” Ms. Rice told reporters. “There is much that can be done to begin to bring Gaza out of the dark of Hamas’ reign there and into the light of reconnecting to the very good governance that the Palestinian Authority can provide.”

Ms. Rice has devoted much of the past year to a fruitless effort to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which was expelled from Gaza by Hamas two years ago.

On her last workday in office, she repeated concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, where hundreds of Palestinian civilians have been killed and much of the infrastructure destroyed.

Egypt has proposed a cease-fire agreement, under which fighting would stop for 10 days, with Israeli forces remaining in Gaza, until permanent security arrangements can be made to ensure that Hamas does not continue to fire rockets into Israel.

Mrs. Livni, during a press conference that was confrontational at times, rejected suggestions that Israel’s military operation has hurt negotiations with the Palestinians, saying that it in fact “serves the peace process.”

“In order to strengthen the moderates and the legitimate government [of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], we need to weaken the others,” she said in reference to Hamas.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Hamas took control of the territory in 2007 after a victory in legislative elections that the United States refused to recognize.

On Friday, an Israeli air strike killed seven Palestinians in the Shijaiya quarter of Gaza, Reuters reported. An Israeli tank shell killed three children of a prominent Gaza doctor and two of his brother’s children in their homes in the Jabalya refugee camp, according to medical staff and Israel’s Channel 10 television.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally, boycotted talks in Qatar about the Gaza situation. Qatar announced the suspension of ties with Israel, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned up to denounce Israel, the Associated Press reported.

• Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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