(photo credit: IDF [file])
Amid an unprecedented rise in the level of tension between Egypt and Israel, Defense Minister Ehud Barak will travel to Sharm e-Sheikh on Wednesday for talks with the Egyptian leadership during which he plans to present intelligence supporting Israel's assertion that Egypt could be doing much more to stop arms smuggling into Gaza.
Barak's visit, his first since becoming defense minister, comes at a time of increased tension in Israeli-Egyptian ties because of Israeli frustration and anger that arms smuggling along the Philadelphi Corridor into the Gaza Strip continues, under the Egyptians' watch, unabated. According to Israeli assessments, this smuggling is the engine behind Hamas's massive arms buildup.
The relations grew particularly tense after The Jerusalem Post reported last week that Israel had sent to Washington videotapes of Egyptian soldiers allegedly assisting Hamas in crossing illegally into Gaza, with the aim of convincing Congress to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in US foreign aid to Egypt.
Defense officials told the Post on Tuesday that in his meetings with President Hosni Mubarak and Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, Barak will present documented evidence of Egyptian involvement in the Gaza smuggling activity.
Military sources said that, since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, the IDF has accumulated "loads" of evidence against Egyptian border policemen from various intelligence sources.
The talks will also focus on a deal Egypt is trying to mediate between Israel and Hamas concerning the release of Cpl. Gilad Schalit. Barak will also discuss with Mubarak the Israeli conditions for a potential hudna, or cease-fire, with Hamas in Gaza.
Barak will be accompanied by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i.
"It will be a very tense and difficult meeting," a defense official said. "Barak will not go in there just to hear from Mubarak, but will demand that the Egyptians clamp down and stop the smuggling."
One senior defense official said that Israel needed to threaten to cut off relations with Egypt if it did not start to take action against the weapons smuggling.
The official said that Egypt's decision to unilaterally open the Rafah Crossing earlier this month and allow 2,000 Palestinians, including a number of terrorists en-route to Iran, to leave Gaza was "grounds for a diplomatic crisis."
A government source said that Israel wants good relations with Egypt and sees its relationship with Cairo as a key strategic interest. But, the source said, "there is frustration on the Israeli side about what goes on at the border. We understand that the Egyptians can't do everything, but they must do more. The strengthening of Hamas is not just a threat to Israel, but a threat to the Palestinian Authority and to regional stability."
Diplomatic officials said that Egyptian inaction on this matter stems from a number of different reasons, including:
â€¢ An economic interest, since the arms smuggling is a multi-million dollar "industry" for those involved on the Egyptian side.
â€¢ An interest in not exacerbating ties with Sinai Beduin, who are believed to be involved in the smuggling and who have a tense relationship with the central government in Cairo.
â€¢ An interest in letting the arms smuggling continue in order to place pressure on Israel to open up the Camp David Accords and let the Egyptians increase the number of soldiers on the border.
â€¢ General ineffectiveness of the Egyptian security forces, or an attempt to stop some of the smuggling, but an inability to do so.
â€¢ A belief that Hamas is now well ensconced in Gaza, and that it is not in Egypt's interest to push Hamas too hard, lest they push back and cause domestic problems in Egypt via the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, meanwhile, rejected Israel's allegations of inactivity - particularly comments Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee regarding Egypt's performance on the Gaza border, which she called "awful and problematic."
AFP reported that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Livni "would do better to concentrate on negotiation efforts with the Palestinians... instead of speaking without weighing her words about things she should not deal with without having enough information."
Perhaps as a reflection of the increased tension and an example of tit-for-tat diplomacy, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued an extremely harsh statement on Tuesday condemning Israel for settlement construction.
According to the statement, the Foreign Ministry spokesman "strongly criticized the recently uncovered plans to build more housing units in the settlements and surrounding the city of Jerusalem."
The spokesman said that Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit was holding "urgent contacts with a number of the significant international parties concerned, particularly the US" on the matter.
In harsh language, the spokesman said that "settlement activities and peace are non-reconcilable opposites" and that "Israel has to determine its choices."
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