Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh today for talks on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and implementation of the disengagement from Gaza.

But the meeting will take place in the shadow of yet another snag in the effort to transfer security authority for Jericho to the Palestinian Authority: Israeli and Palestinian officers were unable to finalize the details of the agreement yesterday, despite the progress made in Tuesday's meeting between Mofaz and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

As a result, the handover of Jericho, which was supposed to take place last night, has once again been delayed.

The Mofaz-Mubarak meeting comes as Cairo prepares to host a meeting next week of all the Palestinian factions, in an effort to hammer out an agreement on an extended cease-fire with Israel and a Palestinian unity government. But Mubarak's efforts on this score have been sharply criticized by senior Israel Defense Forces officers, who say that Egypt's mediation between the PA and Hamas does not help to advance the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.

In these talks, IDF sources said, Egypt is essentially forcing the PA to treat Hamas as an equal rather than as subordinate to the elected Palestinian government. This puts Abbas in an uncomfortable position, and encourages Hamas to keep upping its demands, as it has during every previous round of the Egyptian-sponsored talks.

In the General Staff's view, Abbas should be allowed to deal with Hamas on its own, without an Egyptian "umbrella."

However, Mofaz apparently rejects the IDF's view. He believes that Egypt's willingness to promote an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is very important in and of itself, and Israel should not and cannot interfere in how Cairo chooses to do this, by demanding that it not host the talks.

In particular, Israel is pleased by Egypt's offer to train the Palestinian security forces to enable them to control the Gaza Strip following the disengagement.

In any event, the army does not believe that the Cairo talks will lead to an announcement of a formal cease-fire. The current situation of an informal lull is convenient for Hamas, army sources said, and it would prefer not to bind itself with an explicit commitment to cease all attacks against Israel.

Much of today's Mofaz-Mubarak meeting will focus on Egypt's offer to deploy 750 border policemen along its border with Gaza in order to combat arms smuggling into the Strip. Though an agreement has been reached in principle on this issue, the details remain to be ironed out.

Mofaz also wants to know whether Egypt would be willing to expand its border operations, thereby allowing Israel to withdraw from the Philadelphi Road, along the Gazan-Egyptian border.

The IDF is currently slated to remain at Philadelphi even after the disengagement, to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would prefer to withdraw from Philadelphi as well, if a system were in place to prevent the Palestinians from smuggling sophisticated weapons, such as Katyusha rockets, into the Strip.

Finally, Mofaz and Mubarak will discuss the delay in the Jericho transfer.

Following Tuesday's meeting between Mofaz and Abbas, Israeli defense sources had optimistically reported that the deal was almost settled: Mofaz and Abbas had agreed that the village of Uja would be transferred to the Palestinians along with Jericho, and that Israel would reduce its checkpoints around the city. But when security officials met yesterday to iron out the details, a crisis erupted.

Brigadier General Tal Russo, commander of the IDF territorial brigade in the area, and General Haj Ismail, commander of the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, met at noon at the Vered Jericho checkpoint south of Jericho, but failed to reach an agreement. The Palestinians then requested a second meeting later that day, but Russo and Ismail once again failed to agree. The dispute will now apparently be transferred to the political echelon for resolution.

The dispute revolves around two points. First, the Palestinians want all three checkpoints around Jericho removed, while Israel is willing only to remove the checkpoint west of the city, in the direction of Ramallah. It is reluctant to allow the Palestinians freedom of movement either northward, toward the Jordan Valley, or southwest, toward Jerusalem.

Secondly, while Israel has agreed to give the PA security authority over Uja, it wants the IDF to remain in control of the section of the Jordan Valley Highway (Route 90) that passes through the village. The Palestinians, however, want control over the road as well. In addition, Israel wants security powers in Uja transferred to the PA gradually, while the PA wants to immediately restore the situation to what it was before the conflict erupted in September 2000.

Palestinian sources said that the crisis was "much broader than the details of the withdrawal from Jericho," and reflected a lack of trust between Abbas and Sharon.

"If working relations were good, the transfer of control over Jericho would have been settled quickly," said one. "But Israel is systematically undermining [Abbas'] status. You have to understand that in the Palestinians' view, if [Abbas], who invested all his prestige in the meeting with Shaul Mofaz, cannot even get the village of Uja back, how will he be able to obtain much more important diplomatic achievements?"

The Palestinians, he added, do not view the Israeli withdrawal from Jericho as a diplomatic achievement. The PA leadership is more concerned with obtaining security responsibility for other cities, such as Tul Karm, which are due to be handed over only further down the line.

But despite the crisis, the IDF still supports a comparatively rapid handover of most West Bank cities to the PA. Otherwise, army sources said, a security vacuum will be created in these cities, as the PA will not feel obliged to prevent attacks until it receives control, while the IDF has already sharply scaled back its operations in these cities. And any such vacuum is liable to be exploited by the terrorist organizations.