WITH A CRUCIAL push from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israelis and Palestinians have at last taken a step toward converting Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip into a sustained movement toward peace. An agreement reached early Tuesday morning promises Palestinians in Gaza the access to the outside world necessary to convert their tiny, crowded territory from a detention camp into a statelet. It also gives Israel means to cope with the increased risk to its own security that such access necessarily creates. Needed months ago, the accord was stalled by eruptions of violence, domestic political complications on both sides, and the mutual distrust of Israeli and Palestinian leaders: Each side suspects that the other is not willing or able to follow President Bush's "road map" for a negotiated two-state settlement. By clinching the deal, Ms. Rice preserved the possibility that Mr. Bush's plan could still go forward.
The secretary of state also visibly broke with the Bush administration's self-defeating aversion to the kind of high-level, hands-on diplomacy that a half-dozen previous administrations had relied on to catalyze action in the Middle East. Stopping in the region for the fourth time this year, Ms. Rice extended her stay in Jerusalem by a day and then worked through the night on a laptop with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. The groundwork for the access agreement had been laid in endless talks brokered by international envoy James D. Wolfensohn. But as several officials observed, it's doubtful that the final deal would have been struck without intervention by Ms. Rice. Her success places her in the company of former secretaries James A. Baker III, George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger -- not to mention former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- who understood that the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians could not be bridged without such personal involvement.
The odds are still against Ms. Rice and Israeli and Palestinian supporters of a negotiated settlement. The Palestinians, and probably soon Israelis, face several months of campaigning for elections, and will be under pressure not to offer further compromises. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out progress on the road map until the Palestinian Authority disarms extremist groups. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that such disarmament cannot be carried out by force. It's not clear that Mr. Abbas is willing to accept the road map's plan for the creation of a Palestinian state with interim borders, or that Mr. Sharon will depart from his two-year-old policy of favoring unilateral Israeli measures to any settlement with Palestinians. To her credit, Ms. Rice doggedly pressed Mr. Abbas to take a firmer stance against militants and Mr. Sharon to stop expanding Israel's West Bank settlements. Those are supposed to be among the first steps in the road map; making them happen would take a good deal more of the midnight oil that the secretary of state burned this week.