Israel's foreign minister said on Monday that Egypt had agreed to play a key role in ''maintaining order'' in Gaza after a withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements, and could increase the number of Egyptian troops on the border with the Palestinian territory.

 

Addressing a joint press conference with Egyptian presidential adviser Usama al Baz, Israeli minister Silvan Shalom said: "We are working very closely with the Egyptian authorities in order to impose law and order in Gaza during the process and on the day after."

 

Egypt has expressed concern that the Gaza Strip might descend into chaos after a sudden, unilateral Israeli withdrawal and offered to help ensure that does not happen.

 

Shalom arrived in Cairo earlier in the day for talks with the Egyptian leadership on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Israeli premier Ariel Sharon's controversial plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

 

The visit came a day after the Israeli cabinet voted in favour of a compromise agreement on the plan.

 

Under this, the government gave its backing to the overall principle of Sharon's plan, but the prime minister will not make any formal announcement on the evacuation of specific Jewish settlements until March 2005.

 

Progress

 

"I think we are making very important progress and we are very happy that Egypt has decided to play a key role in the process," said Shalom, who later met Egyptian President Husni Mubarak.

 

Shalom said the two countries had agreed to establish committees to work on the issues relating to Egypt and Israel.

 

"I believe we will solve many misunderstandings that we had in the past," he said.

 

Baz said: "All these points are still under discussion, because we want a model that will achieve security and stability there."

 

"We are working very closely with the Egyptian authorities in order to impose law and order in Gaza during the process   and on the day after"

Silvan Shalom

Israel has in the past accused Egypt of doing little to stop Palestinian militants from smuggling weapons across the border into the occupied territories.

 

The Egyptians for their part said restrictions in the peace treaty with Israel prevented them from deploying the manpower needed to monitor the border more effectively.

 

New ideas

 

Shalom said the two sides had found a method that would allow Egypt to increase its troops on the border without any modification to the 1979 peace treaty, which allows Cairo to keep only a limited number there.

 

"We have found a formula that will allow both of us to have these troops there without making any amendment to the peace treaty," Shalom said.

 

"We are now very close to implementing this understanding between Israel and Egypt that will allow them to have more than 100 troops that will be in the Egyptian part of Rafah," Shalom said.

 

Egypt is to maintain 100 soldiers
at the Gaza border

Baz said he hoped that Israel would stick to its original plan to withdraw from Gaza withdrawal.

 

"It is on this basis that we made our hopes and the Palestinian hopes for progress," he said.

 

He added that Egypt also wanted any Israeli withdrawal to be in line with the Middle East road map, a peace plan brokered by the US. 

 

"The Israeli steps should be in compliance with the road map, we should maintain the schedule, we should not waste time," Baz stressed.