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Panetta gets peace pledge in Cairo

    Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is greeted by Benjamin Netanyahu
    Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is greeted by Benjamin Netanyahu

    The Egyptian leadership this week promised the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, that there were no plans to change the peace treaty with Israel.

    Mr Panetta's visit to Egypt on Tuesday came amid uncertainty regarding the future of Egypt's ties with Israel, following the violent attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo last month.

    He met the interim Prime Minister, Essam Sharif, and the head of the Supreme Military Council, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi. Representing the US administration, which annually gives Egypt $1.5 billion of aid, Mr Panetta demanded that the new government in Egypt adhered to the Camp David accords and restored order to its joint Sinai border with Israel. He also offered military assistance, if needed, to beef up security in Sinai.

    In addition to asking for assurances on the future of Egypt's peaceful relations with Israel, Mr Panetta also requested the release of the American-Israeli, Ilan Grapel, arrested three months ago on espionage charges and claims that he tried to foment unrest on the streets of Cairo. Mr Grapel, who has served in the Israeli army, strenuously denies being a spy and says he entered Egypt to work for an NGO which helps Sudan refugees.

    According to Israeli sources, a deal is underway in which both the US and Israel will release Egyptian prisoners in return for the freedom of Grapel and a Bedouin Israeli held in Egypt for the last 11 years. Arab newspapers in London echoed the Israeli sources, suggesting that the deal would take place in the next few weeks.

    The Defence Secretary's visit to Cairo came after meetings with Israel's leaders at the beginning of the week. In Jerusalem the main item on the agenda was Iran's nuclear programme. Mr Panetta urged both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak to co-ordinate any potential attacks on Iran with the US administration.

    Senior Israeli defence sources have said in recent weeks that there is a "short window of opportunity" over the next few months to prevent Iran from reaching "the point of no return" from where it can achieve nuclear weapon capabilities.

    This worries the US which believes that an Israeli attack on Iran will have a serious effect on the stability of the Middle East. It is believed that both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak are leaning towards an attack while former IDF chief of staff, General Gabi Ashkenazy, and former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, have both sounded veiled warnings against such a strategy at this point.

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