US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponed her departure Monday night to work out negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the contentious Rafah issue.
Rice, who flew to Jordan and back in the evening to meet with King Abdullah and convey her condolences over last weekâ€™s Amman hotel suicide bombings, returned later to work to close the deal.
Rice made it clear to all parties before she arrived that she saw the opening of the Rafah crossing from the Gaza Strip to Egypt, and the enhancement of the capacity at the Karni cargo crossing from Gaza was "in sight." into Israel, as key to economic development in Gaza. That she delayed her departure to Korea to get personally involved in the issue was an indication of just how important she considered it.
Speaking during a joint news conference with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas Monday afternoon, Rice said international mediator James Wolfensohn had put forth compromise proposals and an agreement was â€œin sight.â€
The main issue that still needs to be agreed upon has to do with access to film from the surveillance cameras. Israel wants a direct, on-line feed, saying this is key for security, while the PA wants control over the pictures and says a direct feed is an impingement on its sovereignty.
â€œA lot of these are highly technical issues, a number are complicated issues,â€ Rice said. â€œI believe that with will and some creativity, an agreement to what the envoy has proposed... as a way forward should be within sight.â€
Abbas was more optimistic, saying that the deal was â€œimminent.â€
The two sides met in what chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat described as a â€œbusinesslike mood. The mood is that everyone wants to iron out the kinks.â€
But with the pressure from Rice weighing on them, the PA expressed wonder that Israel continued to balk at an agreement.
â€œWe now have the Europeans to monitor the border to make sure there is no smuggling or entrance of suspicious people, and still they do not agree,â€ Erekat said.
The PA has buckled, he said, agreeing on a joint Israeli-PA-EU liaison office, part of the border at Kerem Shalom and Israeli monitoring equipment at the terminal.
The proposed agreement bolsters both Abbas and the USâ€™s credibility among Palestinians, according to Dr. Muhammad Dajani, chairman of American Studies at Al-Kuds University. Palestinians have long asked the US to pressure Israel to agree to open Rafah, and Riceâ€™s extension of her stay, â€œdoes a lot for future credibility for the US as someone who can sponsor future negotiations,â€ he said.
Dr. Ali Abu Shahla, the founder of Gazaâ€™s largest engineering firm and the former engineer of Gaza City, said that regardless of what happens, â€œwe need the terminal open immediately.â€
â€œThe Palestinians feel that we gave up a lot in waiting,â€ said Abu Shahla. â€œBusiness and social opportunities were lost. I had to miss a lot of meetings and exhibitions, and at the same time I am looking forward to future meetings abroad.â€
The Palestinian GDP in the Gaza Strip has plummeted by some 40 percent since the start of the intifada and the closure on the 360 sq. km. strip since September 2000.
â€œWhen foreigners feel they can come here to visit and invest, it will be a boost for everyone,â€ Abu Shahla said, â€œand that means more hope.â€
In addition to dealing with the Rafah crossing, Rice also pressed both sides for an increased truck capacity at the Karni crossing, wanted to set a date for when passenger and truck convoys would start moving from Gaza to the West Bank, and wanted to see Israel give a green light to begin building a seaport in Gaza. One official said that her concern was that without this â€œgreen lightâ€ there would be no foreign investors in the port.
Diplomatic officials said that there was little disagreement over these issues when Rice met Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the morning. Rather, the main point of contention in that meeting was over Hamasâ€™s participation in the upcoming PA legislative elections.
While Israel believes that Hamas should be barred, the US has accepted the PA position that it would be better able to disarm Hamas after the elections than beforehand.
One senior Israeli official said that while this is the US position, â€œI donâ€™t think anyone believes it.â€
Rice said that she understood Israelâ€™s position, and that if Abbas would not disarm Hamas after the elections, he would lose the support of the US. She said that the US would not deal with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, even if they become part of the government.
Israel has made clear to the US that while it would not interfere with the elections even if Hamas were to participate, it would not cease hunting Hamas activists simply because they may be involved in the election campaign. The official said Israel and the US were not at odds on this point.
One participant in the Sharon-Rice meeting said that despite this dispute, the hour-long breakfast was â€œfriendly,â€ and dealt primarily with â€œmaintenance issues.â€
The official said that such contentious issues as settlement outposts and settlement construction were not raised.
Before meeting Sharon, Rice met with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
The meeting, which lasted half an hour, focused on Iran and on Israelâ€™s relationship with the Muslim world. Referring to the Iranian presidentâ€™s recent call to wipe Israel off the map, Rice said that every time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened his mouth he said something more scandalous than the last. Iran is isolating itself from the international community, she added.
Shalom requested that Rice work to transfer the Iranian nuclear issue to the UN Security Council in the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on November 24.
Shalomâ€™s office told The Jerusalem Post that Rice praised the foreign minister for his campaign geared at normalization with the Arab and Muslim world.
She especially lauded Shalomâ€™s scheduled participation in the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia on Tuesday, calling it â€œvery important.â€
Sharon and Shalom also held brief meetings Monday with visiting dignitaries including Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the foreign ministers of Denmark, Hungary, Sweden and Switzerland.