Olmert, Mubarak Agree to Step Up Cooperation to Prevent Arms Smuggling

PM, Egyptian President meet in Sharm el-Sheikh; PM voices hope for peace accord by the end of next year.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak agreed Tuesday to step up cooperation between Israel and Egypt in order to bring an end to the arms smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip.

At a joint press conference following talks at the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, the two leaders said that the heightened cooperation would include information sharing between the countries' security forces.

"Israel is determined to halt terror activity from Gaza," Olmert said, adding that he had discussed the issue with Mubarak. "It will act with all its might to prevent the entry of Hamas terrorists into Gaza to serve as a base for their operations."

"We established joint operating procedures for the [two countries'] security and intelligence agencies in order to prevent terrorists from entering Gaza," said the prime minister.

Defense officials have said that Egypt could do more to stem the tide of arms and armed men into the Strip.

But Mubarak stressed that Egypt has made an extensive effort to prevent the smuggling.

"In the past year we destroyed 236 tunnels and confiscated a large quantity of weapons," he said. "We have no interest in the smuggling, and I would be happy if [Israel and Egypt's] security agencies would meet even once a week in order to discuss the problem. If there is information that smuggling is taking place, please give it to us and we will catch them."

Olmert's talks with Mubarak were seen as an effort to boost Arab participation in the upcoming U.S.- sponsored Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland. Arab League foreign ministers will meet in Cairo on Thursday to debate the issue of participating at Annapolis.

The prime minister said that despite expected crises and arguments with the Palestinians, he hoped to see a peace agreement by the end of next year.

"There will be difficult differences of opinion and crises and arguments, but I am optimistic that if we act with caution and responsibility, there is a chance that in the end we will reach an agreement," Olmert said.

"I very much hope that we will reach it in the course of 2008. It should be clear, and this is agreed upon by the invitees [to Annapolis] that that there will be no implementation of agreements until the road map undertakings are fulfilled in full," a reference to Palestinian pledges to fight terror attacks against Israel.

"We must not view Annapolis as a failure," Mubarak told a joint news conference with Olmert following their talks. "The meeting is aimed at easing the difficulties. Failure would mean that the negotiation has come to the end of the road."

Olmert in the past had said only that he hoped to make serious strides toward such a deal before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009. But he went further Tuesday.

Mubarak, after the meeting with Olmert, said he hoped the Annapolis meeting would succeed. "I am looking forward to constructive positions from Prime Minister Olmert to establish the foundations (of peace) and ensure the success of the conference," Mubarak said.

Mubarak added that he believes Syria will attend the summit.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is set to brief Arab League ministers at the end of the week in Cairo before they decide whether to attend the Annapolis Mideast conference called by U.S. President George W. Bush.

The Annapolis conference is set for early next week, but because of deep Israeli-Palestinian disagreements over a joint statement of principles, as well as doubts about critical Arab participation.

On Monday, Olmert and Abbas had what an Abbas aide described as a difficult meeting, reflecting differences over all the main issues - final borders, sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and settlements. These differences have prevented agreement on a joint pre-conference document, much as they have scuttled decades of peace efforts.

In an attempt to soften the atmosphere, the cabinet agreed earlier Monday to free 441 of more than 9,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, one of the largest releases in years. However, the gesture fell short of Palestinian demands for the release of 2,000 inmates, including those who have served long sentences.

Israeli officials have expressed guarded optimism after Israeli-Palestinian talks that lasted into the pre-dawn hours Tuesday, but it remained unclear how much substantive progress had been made.