Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ducking and diving at the National Press Club
Washington – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made a surprise visit Friday to the United States to sign a bilateral deal aimed at helping to curb arms smuggling into Gaza, as part of an effort to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with only four days left in office, said the memorandum of understanding would improve information sharing between the two countries to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, one of Israel’s chief goals in its deadly three-week incursion into the Gaza Strip.
The deal ‘should be thought of as one of the elements of trying to help bring into being a durable ceasefire … that can actually hold,’ Rice said in Washington, adding she hoped a truce would be reached ‘very, very soon.’
Livni called it a ‘historic’ deal that was a ‘vital component for the cessation of hostilities.’
Israel launched its Gaza offensive on December 27 in a bid to curb near-daily rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas militants in the strip at its south.
More than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive, including more than 300 children, and the aid agencies have warned of an urgent humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, including three civilians.
At a raucous press conference after meeting Rice, Livni defended the incursion, saying the offensive did not undermine the peace process but rather supported the efforts declared in Annapolis in November 2007. The main goal was to disarm Hamas and prevent rearmament, she said.
Livni said the agreement with the US would help interdict the ‘smuggling of weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip’ across the Egyptian border, which have increased militant Hamas’ reach into Israel from 20 to 50 kilometres.
She indicated much of the effort would be in the seas surrounding Israel, but declined to reveal any more details. She said the US would try to work with NATO members in the efforts.
‘The idea is to enhance … the understanding that rearming Hamas is a problem for the whole world, not just for Israel,’ she said.
Security guards stood tensely in front of the press podium while Livni answered strident questions from reporters from Al-Jazeera and other Middle East news organizations, CNN and NBC.
One reporter was physically removed from the microphone when he charged Livni was a terrorist.
A moderator from the National Press Club, where the event was held, tried to cut off another reporter who read at length from a Human Rights Watch report detailing the killing and ‘murder’ of Palestinian children.
But Livni insisted on answering the question. She said the ‘loss of a child is terrible to any family,’ but noted that international law draws a difference between someone killed deliberately and someone killed by mistake.
She said Israel had made 90,000 phone calls to civilians in Gaza before the offensive started, urging them to remove themselves from proximity to Hamas militants and their weapons.
Livni dismissed the suggestion that the incursion served her own political interests as she aims to become prime minister in the coming months.
‘Nonsense,’ she quipped, adding there was a ‘four-letter word’ that she would have preferred to answer with, but chose not to use.
Egypt has taken the lead in trying to broker a ceasefire between the two sides, but Rice made no guarantees that a truce would take hold before president-elect Barack Obama takes office on Tuesday.
‘We’re working at it on as quick a timeline as we possibly can in support of the Egyptian mediation,’ Rice said.
In Tel Aviv, the Israeli government said it would convene its security cabinet on Saturday night to discuss progress made in the ceasefire talks.
Under the two-and-a-half page agreement with the US, Washington agrees to commit resources, such as intelligence and technology sharing, to help prevent Hamas from rearming.
Rice said she hoped Friday’s signing would be followed by similar deals between Israel and other European countries. On Thursday she spoke by telephone with a series of foreign ministers including Egypt, France, Britain, Spain and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Livni said that only through a ‘united effort’ to combat terrorism could a ceasefire between the two sides be achieved.