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Israel, Egypt negotiate pledge

Eye curbing hostilities with Palestinians

JERUSALEM -- Israel has pledged in a series of understandings reached with Egypt to stop most offensive military action against the Palestinians if all Palestinian militant factions agree to a cease-fire, senior officials in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said yesterday.

The understandings, negotiated between top Israeli and Egyptian officials in recent weeks, also touch on Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer and the responsibilities Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza, would assume after the pullout.

Palestinians were not part of the discussions, and their broader disputes with Israel -- from the fate of Jewish settlements to the status of Jerusalem -- were not broached. But the Israeli pledges could help Egypt's bid to broker a truce and a resumption of peace talks after more than four years of bitter fighting.

They also provide more evidence of warmer relations between Egypt and Israel -- which traded prisoners this week -- and of the surge of regional diplomacy in the aftermath of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death last month.

''I would call it a series of understandings that have not been put into writing but that sketch the political horizons of an agreement," one of the officials said on condition of anonymity.

He spoke hours after four Palestinian militants and an Israeli soldier were killed in separate incidents in the Gaza Strip, reminders that while the number of skirmishes has dropped in recent weeks, the two sides are still firmly wedged in violence.

Another Israeli official said the understandings would proceed only after the Palestinian presidential election next month and were predicated on the assumption that Mahmoud Abbas, a pragmatist who has criticized the uprising for its violence, would win.

Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, is running neck and neck with jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who advocates pressing ahead with the intifadah. During his short tenure as prime minister last year, Abbas persuaded the Islamic Hamas group and other Palestinian militias to abide by a unilateral ceasefire.

But the truce broke down after less than two months, in part because it was not reciprocated by Israel.

This time, Israel is ready to halt its assassinations against members of extremist groups and its raids on Palestinian areas except in cases when assailants are on their way to an attack, the Israeli officials said, invoking the analogy of a ''ticking bomb."

Both officials said an Egyptian media report citing understandings with Israel that could serve as a basis for a ''comprehensive settlement" was premature and overstated.

The report by the official Egyptian news agency MENA said Egypt, Israel, the Palestinians, and international brokers had reached a breakthrough but provided few details. Egyptian officials did not comment on it.

Egypt in 1978 became the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, but relations, usually cold, have turned especially frosty since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

The new understandings aim to alleviate the political tension in several ways, the Israeli officials said.

Cairo will return its ambassador to Israel after a four-year absence and will move to abolish the embargoes on Israel leveled by Egyptian companies and organizations.

In return, Sharon's government will approve a large natural gas deal with Egypt and advance other projects.

''Egypt gets various economic incentives, it gets back in the US embrace, it gets to become involved in the reconstruction of the Palestinian economy," the first Israeli official said.

He said Cairo's process of warming to Sharon, long viewed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a hard-liner, was spurred in part by bombings in Egypt's Sinai resorts on Oct. 7 that killed 34 people.

Egypt feared the attacks, probably engineered by Islamic militants, would devastate its $3 billion tourism industry.

Another turning point occurred this year when Mubarak became convinced Sharon was serious about withdrawing from Gaza and evacuating more than 8,000 Jewish settlers, despite pressure from critics in his own Likud party.

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