Deal on Gaza Border Crossings In Sight

11-14-05 - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israelis and Palestinians on Monday to capitalize on the opportunity for peace and cooperation offered by Israel's unilateral pullout from the long-occupied Gaza Strip, saying a deal is "in sight" on border issues.

Rice delayed her departure from Jerusalem in hopes that last-minute bargaining sessions might allow her to announce a deal resolving the thorny and technical issues involving border crossings.

Questions of security and authority at routes in and out of Gaza have stalled progress between the two sides since the Palestinians took nominal control of the seaside territory bordering Israel two months ago.

Rice was finishing a Mideast diplomatic trip later Monday with a condolence call on Jordan, where terrorist bombings killed nearly 60 people at three Amman hotels last week.

As she has done three other times this year, Rice shuttled between Jerusalem and the Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah with a mix of praise and pressure for both sides. She saw Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over breakfast, then held a long one-one-one session with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the old offices where Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat, holed up before his death last year.

The top U.S. diplomat used coded language to say that Israel should not build more illegal outposts in the West Bank or use a security barrier now under construction to effect a land grab before the borders of an eventual Palestinian state are fixed.

And she said the Palestinians must do more to disarm and counter the militant group Hamas.

In a raid early Monday, Israeli troops killed Hamas' top military commander in the northern West Bank, Amjad Hanawi, according to Palestinian medical officials and neighbors. Hamas militants later Monday vowed revenge.

Although the Bush administration has tried not to put a U.S. stamp on discussions among the Israelis and Palestinians, Rice had wanted to seal a border deal to preserve momentum.

An agreement "is in sight," Rice said following her session with Abbas. "With enough will and creativity I believe these issues can be resolved."

A deal to free up Palestinian movement while satisfying Israeli concerns about terrorism would be a statement of progress beyond the technical issues at hand.

International envoy James Wolfensohn warned Sunday that time is running out for Israel and the Palestinians to wrap up a deal.

"I think it will be a tragedy for both sides if that opportunity is not done, but can I give you a guarantee? No," Wolfensohn said. "I can only tell you that we are clear in what we are trying to do, and in the next few days, we will know whether we are successful or not."

Wolfensohn represents the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. The so-called quartet has devised a road map to prod Israel and the Palestinians into a negotiated settlement.

Israel closed Gaza's border with Egypt shortly before the pullout and has restricted the movement of cargo into Israel, the main market for Palestinian goods.

The Palestinians say reopening the crossings is essential to rebuilding Gaza's shattered economy after three decades of Israeli control, especially with the harvest season approaching.

Wolfensohn has brokered months of talks on the issue and had hoped to have a deal in time for Rice's visit.

Earlier Monday, Rice met in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Going into their private meeting, Rice said she would "have discussions about how to move forward on the joint agenda to try and make the disengagement of Gaza work for all so that we can continue our progress toward two states living said by side."

Shalom added: "She's coming also to try and narrow the gap between Israel and the Palestinians and to help us strengthen our relations with the Arab and Muslim world."