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Rice delays Asia trip to work on Gaza issues

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bargained with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators into the early hours on Tuesday, delaying her departure for Asia as a deal seemed near on Gaza border crossings.
Palestinians cross the Rafah border term
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. Said Khatib / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. 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 Korea.

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 stage.

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 adviser 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.

U.S. pressure
Israel, which has kept control of Gaza’s borders and airspace 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 cease-fire has put a damper on diplomacy.

Political upheaval
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 elections.

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 this.

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.”