Barak expected to be grilled in US over Gaza crossings policy

Defense Minister Ehud Barak left Sunday night for the US, where he is expected to run into stiff US resistance not only over Israel's settlement policy, but also over its policy regarding the Gaza border crossings and the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. On the eve of his visit, Barak told the cabinet at its weekly meeting Sunday that there was neither "hunger" nor distress in Gaza. In fact, he said, more material was entering Gaza now than was the case during the cease-fire that existed there last year. "There is no hunger or distress in Gaza," he said, during a security briefing given by Yuval Diskin, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). "More supplies pass through the border crossings today than did during some points of the last cease-fire. Only sensitive materials or construction materials are not transferred in." The issue of the border crossings into Gaza was one of three main sticking points relating to the Palestinians that were raised during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington two weeks ago, along the questions of settlements and a two-state solution. US officials made clear to Netanyahu that they were unhappy with what they considered to be "foot-dragging" on the opening of the crossings into Gaza, as well as on the reconstruction of the Gaza, and wanted to see movement on these issues. While Israel had a list of items that were permitted into Gaza, the US - during Netanyahu's visit - wanted Jerusalem instead to provide a list of items that were to be excluded from Gaza, hoping in this way that more items would be allowed in. Israel did not agree, and at present is not issuing any list, opting to deal with the issue on an ad-hoc basis. Netanyahu, at the weekly cabinet meeting, said Israel was "continuously asked to make things easier for the population in Gaza, to let in materials and equipment, but we have security interests there." Netanyahu said a balance needed to be found between "making things easier for the population and making it harder for Hamas to gain more weapons." Efforts to come up with a mechanism that would allow the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, but not help Hamas, have so far proven unsatisfactory. Barak will begin his visit in New York with a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at which the Gaza issue is expected to be high on the agenda. He is also scheduled to meet Monday in New York with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell. On Tuesday he will go to Washington and during his two days there will meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones, special envoy for the Persian gulf and southwest Asia Dennis Ross, and leaders of the House and Senate. He is scheduled to return to Israel on Thursday.