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(photo credit: Channel 2)
Egypt will begin to crack down on weapons smugglers along the Philadelphi corridor into the Gaza Strip until Israel no longer has anything to complain about, Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
"This is a common issue for Israel and Egypt, and we are working to end it soon," Suleiman told the Post shortly after meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a golf resort in Sharm e-Sheikh. "We are doing our best there, and you will not hear about it again."
Suleiman and Defense Minister Muhammad Tantawi told Barak about Egypt's recent million-dollar purchase of tunnel-detection systems, first reported by the Post on Tuesday, which they plan to begin using along the corridor in the next few months.
Barak flew to the resort town on Wednesday for a series of meetings with the Egyptian leadership, including President Hosni Mubarak. As he arrived, Egyptian security forces announced that they had confiscated 1.2 tons of explosives in Rafah and had captured a senior weapons smuggler.
During the meetings - which focused on weapons smuggling, the fate of kidnapped soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, continued violence in the Gaza Strip, and the Iranian nuclear threat - Barak stressed that Israel would not concede to Egyptian demands to increase the number of forces along the corridor from 750 to 1,500.
"The core of the issue is not about the level of forces," he said. "We think the level of forces should remain the same."
During his meetings, Barak heard complaints from the Egyptian officials about Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's comments at the Knesset Monday concerning Egyptian troops' security performance along the border.
The officials told Barak Egypt had been deeply insulted by Livni's remarks, but that they did not plan to allow her words to spark a crisis between Israel and Egypt. Barak defended Livni and said that despite her remarks, she remained committed to strengthening Israeli relations with Egypt. Barak said that during his meeting with Mubarak, the two leaders had decided that future disputes would be resolved in face-to-face meetings.
Israeli defense officials said they were satisfied with the outcome of the talks, but planned to wait and see whether Egypt would really increase its efforts to stop smuggling, as Mubarak promised.
"We will have to wait and see what the results will be," a top member of Barak's delegation to Sharm told reporters on the flight back to Israel.
During his meetings, Barak was asked about a report last week in the Post according to which Israel had sent videotapes to Congress in an effort to pressure the US legislative body into withholding a portion of its foreign military aid to Egypt. Barak explained that in the end, the tapes had not been shown to Congress and that Israel had sent them only after the US administration had asked it to provide evidence of its claim that Egypt was assisting Palestinian weapons smugglers.
Barak said he had raised the issue of Schalit in all his talks, but refrained from providing details, saying "the less we talk, the more effective we will be in bringing him home."
On other topics, Mubarak criticized Israel's decision to continue building in east Jerusalem. Mubarak echoed Palestinian demands that Israel cancel a project announced earlier this month to build 307 homes in the neighborhood of Har Homa. He described it as damaging to the peace talks, according to presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad.
"This settlement activity will hijack the only outcome of the Annapolis conference, which was the relaunching of peace negotiations," Mubarak told reporters following the meeting. "The failure of two rounds of negotiations between the Israeli and the Palestinian sides this month is due to the Israeli settlement activity."
Barak said the Har Homa construction project was not controversial, since it was taking place in Jerusalem rather than in the West Bank, where the government has promised to freeze the building of new settlements.
"In our view, this is not part of the problem with the Palestinians... we are not building new settlements," he said.
Barak, in turn, criticized the Palestinians for not doing enough in "rooting out the terror infrastructure."
The US-backed road map peace plan calls on Israel to halt all settlement construction, while requiring the Palestinians to rein in terror elements.