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Hours before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's official farewell to the State Department Friday, she and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) pledging greater US and international assistance to stymie weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
The MOU enhances US-Israeli intelligence and military cooperation, and calls on international partners to stop Iran from funneling weapons to Hamas via the Middle East and Africa.
Ending the smuggling has been a central demand from Israel for any cease-fire deal.
"For a cessation of hostilities to be durable, there must be an end to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. That is why the MOU we sign today is so important as a vital component for the cessation of hostility," Livni said as she stood by Rice at the MOU signing ceremony at the State Department Friday morning.
"I believe that this MOU, together with a parallel understanding with Egypt and an end to attacks from Gaza, can create the basis for Israeli decisions on the future of the operation," she said.
"We've said repeatedly that the continued supply of armaments to Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, including by some in the region, is a direct cause of the current hostilities," Rice said, squarely blaming Hamas for the ongoing violence.
"It is, therefore, incumbent upon us in the international community to prevent the rearmament of Hamas so that a cease-fire will be durable and fully respected. There must be an international consensus that Gaza can never again be used as a launching pad against Israeli cities," she said.
The MOU aims to be a blueprint for enlisting greater international support and action, potentially by serving as a model for similar bilateral agreements between Israel and other allies.
The agreement also has the support of the incoming US leadership, according to State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack.
"It commits the United States," he said, noting Rice had discussions with incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton concerning the matter.
"I think it's safe to assume that we wouldn't have moved forward if we hadn't done some careful consultations prior to signing this with the incoming folks," he said.
He noted that Rice also conducted intensive telephone diplomacy as part of the flurry of diplomatic activity Thursday to draw up the agreement, including three calls to Livni and two apiece to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The MOU begins by "recalling the steadfast commitment of the United States to Israel's security" and determining that "the acquisition and use of arms" by Hamas was the direct cause of the current conflagration.
It then commits the US to working with the international community "to prevent the supply of arms and related materiel to terrorist organizations" in Gaza from the Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea and eastern Africa by working with NATO and regional partners.
The MOU calls for enhanced US security and intelligence cooperation with regional governments, further intelligence integration with international naval forces, and enhanced international sanctions and enforcement against providing support to Hamas and terrorists organizations "including through an international response to those states, such as Iran."
There is also an indication of stepped-up American funding from a US pledge to provide logistical help and train and equip regional security forces to combat smuggling, as well as help expand international aid to provide employment opportunities for those involved in smuggling.
"This is a beginning," Livni said when asked about the practical implications of the MOU at a press conference following the signing. "The understanding is that this is a priority."
She continued, "We are going to work with the international community and other parties in Europe to translate it into more concrete action. The idea is to enhance, to add some new ideas how to do so, in an understanding that rearmament of Hamas is something which is against the interests of the world and not something which is only the Israeli problem."
The press conference, held at the National Press Club, turned into a tense affair as Livni was asked about alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza, its barring of journalists from the fighting and charges that Israel had started the conflict by blockading Gaza. These questions were posed mainly by Arab journalists and representatives of Arab outlets.
One questioner was escorted out after calling Livni a "terrorist," but she retained her composure and insisted on answering his question, to defend Israel's actions in Gaza and stress that the IDF regrets causing civilian casualties.
Livni responded more emotionally to a question from Al-Jazeera English TV, asking whether she had made the trip to Washington to score a diplomatic achievement to help her chances in the upcoming elections.
"Nonsense," she replied, adding, "There are four-letter words that I don't want to use."
She then backed her political rival, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the military effort, but said it was her responsibility to make progress diplomatically, just as it was the IDF's responsibility to wage an effective military campaign.
On the diplomatic front, she dismissed Mauritania's decision to cut ties with Israel when asked about the move, saying, "I'm sure that these will be renewed, in an understanding that what Israel is doing is pure self-defense."
She responded to Turkey's call to bar Israel from the UN by referring to Muslim public opinion's sharp turn against Israel.
"I can understand the need or maybe the unwillingness of some leaders to stand for the right thing. And they cannot face the public opinion," she said. "And we can hear these kind of talks coming from all over."
While she spoke, a group of Code Pink women antiwar protesters demonstrated outside the National Press Club building.
After the event, Livni was whisked to meetings on Capitol Hill, including with Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, wrapping up a lightning visit to Washington.
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