Rice plays heavy to broker Gaza deal

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played the heavy on Tuesday to help seal a deal that was eluding Israelis and Palestinians and clouding a hopeful moment for Mideast peace. The agreement that Rice announced on opening Gaza's borders also tested her willingness to lay personal prestige on the line for a bargain that might not hold. During all-night negotiations in a Jerusalem hotel suite named for slain Israeli peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin, Rice let both sides know she wasn't leaving without agreement on questions that arose from Israel's decision to end three decades of military occupation in the Gaza strip. In three previous trips to Jerusalem and the Palestinian headquarters in the West Bank, Rice had preferred to at least give the appearance that the United States was in the back seat as Israel and the Palestinians contemplated a Gaza Strip emptied of Jewish settlements and run by Palestinians. This time, she rearranged her schedule, staying an extra night in Jerusalem, to apply pressure. Instead of the airy rhetoric she often uses about the promise of democracy and self-rule, Rice talked about details like bus convoys, truck inspections and video monitors. "Whenever you get to a place where you're pretty close - not there but pretty close - you're best off to try to close it when you can," Rice said. Running on two hours of sleep and several servings of birthday cake from a 51st birthday spent almost entirely in negotiations, Rice seemed under no illusions about the perils of dealmaking in the volatile Middle East. "We have a long road ahead - a long road ahead," Rice told reporters before leaving to join President George W. Bush for several days of trade discussions and diplomacy in eastern Asia. The gritty details of the border pact that emerged will be a crucial measure of how well Israelis and Palestinians can work together on much bigger questions of war and peace that remain unresolved. Rice brokered the deal even as another top U.S. diplomat in the Mideast was expressing frustration at what he described as Israeli and Palestinian foot-dragging. James Wolfensohn, a special Middle East envoy of the international peacemaking group known as the Quartet, had said he was ready to quit after months of negotiations. After the agreement was announced, Wolfensohn said Rice's presence was key, underscoring how crucial her role will continue to be. "If you are an envoy of the Quartet you have a certain amount of possibilities in negotiations," Wolfensohn said. "If you are the secretary of state of the United States, I would have to say there is a little more clout associated with it. And to push it over the edge, one needs not envoys, but secretaries of state." Israelis and Palestinians had been unable to agree on control of border crossings in and out of Gaza since Israel's historic withdrawal in September. Optimism had turned to finger-pointing on both sides. The Palestinians want free movement in and out of the territory they now control. Israel, which shares a long border with Gaza, wants security guarantees that militants and weapons won't enter the area and threaten Israel. Under Tuesday's deal, the Gaza-Egypt border would tentatively open Nov. 25 and construction of a Mediterranean seaport would begin, Rice said. Palestinians would be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza in convoys of buses across Israel. The agreement gives Palestinians their first control over the borders of territory that would one day be part of an autonomous Palestinian state. In the short term, the deal gives a much needed boost to a shattered Gaza economy and could help dampen Palestinian worries that Gaza would become sealed off with little access to the outside world. "I think that the agreement will satisfy the majority of the Palestinian people," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Mohammed Dahlan. "At least for now, travelers are not going to see any more Israelis. No Israeli is going to control their lives." Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who led the Israeli negotiating team, said the pact strikes "a proper balance between our security needs and the Palestinians' economic needs." Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said the episode had a lesson for the Bush administration. "In order to move the Israelis and Palestinians into an agreement on something, you need the big guns from the administration, the ones who can speak for the president, to twist arms," Alpher said. "I would hope that Rice would get an appetite for this and want to come back."