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Rice's midnight oil may signal policy change

Its Mideast policy flagging, Washington was pushing hard for some sort of success with the Israelis and Palestinians. The anxiety became apparent when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pulled an all-nighter. NBC News' Preston Mendenhall reports from Tel Aviv.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to journalists during a press conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday. 
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks to journalists during a press conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday.  Baz Ratner / AP
/ Source: NBC News

TEL AVIV — Its Mideast policy flagging, Washington has been pushing hard for some sort of breakthrough with the Israelis and Palestinians. The anxiety became apparent when Condoleezza Rice turned her plane around — literally.

After a day of meetings Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the U.S. secretary of state headed to neighboring Jordan to lay a wreath at the Radisson hotel bombing site.

But instead of flying on to a summit in Asia, as planned, she then directed her plane back to the Holy Land to work through the night in Jerusalem.

Reporters were told to check back into their hotels. Rice wasn’t going to leave until there was a deal — even if that meant ditching her schedule at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in South Korea, the secretary’s next stop.

Yet, despite the fevered, coffee-fueled talks centered on her suite overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, this wasn’t exactly the peace-clinching, midnight oil-burning all-nighter it may have seemed. Even among the most optimistic Mideast peaceniks, comprehensive peace is a very distant dream.

Instead, it can be seen as an important step in getting the sides on the path to some sort of harmony. It is also a strong indication that the White House, its image battered in the region by the ongoing Iraq insurgency, is reconsidering its hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem in favor of a more Clinton-like, full-court press.

Agreement with narrow focus
The narrow focus of Rice’s energy was on persuading Israel to open the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt — the Rafah border crossing — and getting the Palestinians to guarantee that it wouldn’t be used to ferry weapons to militant organizations such as Hamas.

The Rafah crossing, the Palestinians’ one link to the outside world that doesn’t go through Israel, is seen to be vital for their economic success. 

And reopening Rafah brings more than a financial boost for poverty-stricken Gaza. Providing the Palestinian leadership shows itself capable of policing its own international border, Rafah could produce the goodwill and trust needed to keep Israelis and Palestinians talking.

Other parts of the deal will allow Palestinians to travel in bus and truck convoys between Gaza and the West Bank, and start construction on a sea port, further alleviating economic isolation.

“I have to say, as a football fan, sometimes the last yard is the hardest, and I think we experienced that today,” Rice told a hastily called news conference Tuesday morning. “This agreement is intended to give Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives.”

Eye on security
Like most agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, this one is complicated. To alleviate Israeli security concerns, dozens of foreign security experts will be present at the border. An Italian general will mediate any disputes. Israeli and Palestinian border officials will jointly monitor dozens of security cameras from a control room a few miles away form the crossing.

Many details of the agreement had been discussed in the weeks prior to Rice’s visit, but it took a heavyweight such as the secretary of state to force both sides to swallow hard and reach a deal.

Rice staked her reputation on walking away with a victory for the Bush administration. That she did so is a credit to her powers of persuasion — and that the White House desperately needs a Mideast success to balance its ongoing struggles in Iraq.