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Washington – The Bush administration is racing in its final moments to negotiate a deal with Israel that might allow the Jewish state to agree to a cease-fire with the militant Hamas movement and end its military operation in Gaza.
On the administration’s second-to-last work day before President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, the two sides were crafting an agreement on American support for Egyptian-led truce mediation efforts under which the U.S. would provide technical support and expertise to prevent Hamas from rearming, said U.S. and Israeli officials.
“We are aggressively working for that cease-fire and we are trying to help put the pieces in place so that it can be durable,” she said.
It was not immediately clear if members of Obama’s or Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s transition teams were being advised of the talks, which could lead to a prominent and ongoing U.S. role in the truce.
A senior official from the Israeli foreign ministry was meeting Thursday with the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East at the State Department in a bid to secure the memorandum of understanding that would also guarantee international monitors along Egypt’s border with Gaza, which is riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons to Hamas, diplomats said.
Details of the meeting between the two officials – acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Director General of Israeli foreign ministry Aaron Abramovich – were not immediately available.
The goal is to overcome Israeli concerns about the Egyptian initiative, which has yet to produce a cease-fire after a week of intense talks in Cairo during which Israel has continued to pound targets in Gaza from the air, land and sea, they said. This would then give the Israelis the security assurances it wants to accept a truce, they said.
The document, which aims to prevent smuggled weapons from even reaching the border, would then be presented to the European Union for its ratification, they said.
The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Olmert’s office said he and Rice had discussed the matter in a phone call and that “Israel is interested in utilizing the Egyptian channel to bring about a cease-fire and an end to weapons smuggling in order to end the operation.”
“The Secretary of State said that the U.S. would be willing to assist in solving the smuggling issue and sign a memorandum of understanding with Israel on the subject,” Olmert’s office said in a statement.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on the possible agreement and did not mention Rice’s call to Olmert at an informal briefing with reporters Thursday.
Rice herself said she had spoken with Livni and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and had renewed grave U.S. concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and urged Israel again to do everything it can to avoid civilian casualties in its ongoing military operations there.
Her calls came after Israel shelled the United Nations headquarters in the Gaza Strip, engulfing the compound and the main warehouse in fire and destroying thousands of pounds of food intended for Palestinian refugees.
Rice called the strike an “unfortunate incident” and said the Israelis had told her it was a mistake.
“There is great concern on their part,” she said. “It was, they say, an error that it happened.”
“We had a discussion of the difficulties that this had caused and the need to try to avoid such incidents,” she said. “I am quite sure that they are trying to avoid them, but it is a difficult environment.”
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