Background: Why Rice pushed so hard

It is not every day that the US Secretary of State changes her schedule, rolls up her sleeves and gets into the nitty-gritty on two hours of sleep - of very technical negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, this is the stuff of which high diplomatic drama is made. So it was understandable that the international media played up the Israeli-Palestinian agreement over the Rafah crossing Tuesday, with one outlet deeming the story worthy of a "breaking news" label, creating the impression that the world was actually holding its breath on this one. Granted, the agreement months in the making, is significant. It gives the Palestinians control of a border - without Israeli interference - for the first time, and it also marks the first time Israel accepted a third-party presence on its outer envelope (since disengagement, the Gaza-Egyptian border cannot really be called Israel's border any longer). However, there seemed to be something a bit overstated about the hoopla that accompanied Tuesday's announcement, especially since the accord seemed well on the way to being wrapped up even before Rice arrived. To understand Rice's extra effort and the State Department-driven spin to play up the story, it is important to look at what happened over the weekend in Bahrain, the first leg of Rice's recent journey. On Saturday, US President George W. Bush's democratization program for the Middle East suffered a blow when a high profile US-backed summit in Bahrain, meant to promote political freedom and economic change in the region, ended without agreement. A straight-forward draft declaration on democratic and economic principles was shelved after Egypt insisted on language that would have given Arab governments greater control over which NGOs and democracy groups could receive money from a new fund set up - largely with US money - to promote democracy in the region. Rice suffered a defeat in Bahrain, and then came here. The Secretary of State, who had let the Israelis and Palestinians know in advance that she expected a deal on Rafah to be wrapped up before she left the region, could not afford to be burned twice within three days in a region as important to the Administration as the Middle East. As a result, she put her prestige on the line to conclude the agreement, and conclude it she did. While significant, this agreement is still not Oslo III. Indeed, it is not even legally an agreement since the sides did not sign on any dotted line. Rather, it is more a political understanding than anything else, a political understanding similar to the understandings Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas drew up in Sharm e-Sheikh in February. The US is still trying to get Israel and the PA to implement those understandings; understandings which were also drawn up amid a degree of hoopla and international expectation. There was, in addition, another element behind Rice's determination to get this deal closed now. According to one official close to the negotiations, a fundamental distrust of the Palestinians and abiding conservatism was driving the Israeli security officials, leading them into a stall posture. While during another period the US may have tolerated this foot dragging for a bit longer, the country's newfound political instability, brought about by Amir Peretz's stunning defeat of Shimon Peres in the Labor party primary last week, has jolted the Administration into action. If, indeed, this was very much a political agreement, then it needed to be taken while the government still had any political capital to expend. The growing political instability here made it clear to the US that the window of opportunity to close a deal such as this was narrowing quickly. And this deal, with its call for enhanced cargo capacity at Karni and a target to begin passenger and truck convoys from Gaza to the West bank, was considered by the US and Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn as critical to attracting the investment and donor dollars into Gaza necessary for the region's economic development. The Rafah deal was the first agreement between the PA and Israel since disengagement, and it is likely, with elections looming so large, to be the last until the country goes to the polls. Rice had to strike while the irons were still hot because once Labor and Likud agree on an election date, the diplomatic irons will cool down significantly for a number of months.