November 14, 2005

Rice haggles to reach Gaza deal

By Sue Pleming and Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
bargained with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators into the
early hours on Tuesday, postponing a trip to Asia as a deal
seemed near on Gaza border crossings.

Rice hopes to win agreement on opening Gaza's access as a
step to strengthening the strip's economy and giving a boost to
chances for peacemaking, weighed down by violence since Israel
withdrew from the occupied territory in September.

To keep up the pressure, Rice postponed a trip to Asia
where she will miss some meetings of APEC in Pusan, South

In a suite overlooking Jerusalem's Old City, she met
separately with senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators,
constantly amending texts on a laptop computer.

"The negotiations are intense," said one U.S. official, who
asked not to be named because talks were at such a sensitive

Staff luggage remained on her aircraft and plans were
hastily made to stay overnight in Jerusalem. A departure was
planned for later on Tuesday.

A senior State Department official said Rice was working on
a range of issues with senior Palestinian negotiators.

Initially, the Israeli delegation dealt with Rice by phone
but later, Dov Weisglass, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon and other senior officials came for talks in a
sign negotiations were getting more serious.

International Middle East envoy James Wolfensohn, who has
threatened to quit because of frustration over an impasse in
negotiations over border crossings, left in the early hours.


Israel, which has kept control of Gaza's borders and air
space since its withdrawal, has been under U.S. pressure to
reopen the Rafah border crossing to Egypt to trade and travel
to help Gaza's mostly impoverished population.

"They have to do with addressing issues related to the
daily lives of Palestinians, not only related to the crossings
but also to their future economic viability and easing the
daily plight of the Palestinians," said a senior State
Department official, who asked not to be named.

The delegations were also looking at two other key
crossings, Karni which is mainly for goods and Erez, which is
used by workers, the official said.

Gaza's Rafah border crossing to Egypt is its main outlet to
the rest of the world, but has been closed since Israel
withdrew in September. Reopening it is widely seen as vital to
boosting Gaza's economy and creating momentum for peacemaking.

"There is agreement in sight," Rice told a news conference
with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Monday.

U.S. officials have voiced frustration with what they view
as the failure of both sides to capitalize on Israel's Gaza
pullout, the first removal of settlements by the Jewish state
from land Palestinians want for a state.

Sporadic fighting despite a ceasefire has put a damper on

Rice's visit, her fourth to the region this year, has also
been overshadowed by political upheaval in Israel that
threatens to bring down Sharon's coalition and force early

Both sides have agreed to European Union observers at
Rafah, but differences have appeared to center on Israeli
monitoring of the crossing.

Israel fears militants could take advantage of its lack of
presence at the terminal to smuggle in weapons for armed groups
in Gaza, and has pushed for a video link through which it could
view Palestinians crossing the border. Palestinians oppose

A Palestinian official said of the Israeli demands: "It is
difficult to explain to our people that they have been
liberated when they are occupied by proxy."