Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that a deal on Palestinian freedom of movement was "in sight," including terms to open the Rafah crossing that is the Gaza Strip's main outlet to the world. In an attempt to win an agreement, Rice delayed her departure from Israel for Asia at the last minute Monday for marathon negotiations.
Rice, who spent the day shuttling between Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said at a news conference that talks on the elusive agreement were "making a lot of progress." After a quick trip to Jordan to meet King Abdullah and pay respects at the site of one of the bombings that killed 57 people in Amman last week, Rice returned to Jerusalem late Monday to try to wrap up a deal. Talks continued into early Tuesday.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib said early Tuesday that Israel had asked for changes in compromise proposals put forward by special Middle East envoy James D. Wolfensohn. "They're compromising the compromise of the compromise," he said.
Opening the Rafah route between Gaza and Egypt is the pivotal first step in a range of issues to normalize life and allow commercial traffic after Israel's withdrawal of 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza three months ago. The terms will set an important precedent for other Palestinian links to the world, including the Gaza airport and a future seaport.
A deal could have particular impact on the stagnant Palestinian economy and on security for the Israelis, who in the negotiations are pressing for security measures to prevent extremists and weapons from moving in and out of Gaza. An agreement would also help calm the generally tense atmosphere between the sides since Israel's withdrawal, U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials say.
The Bush administration is particularly eager to win agreement now to generate new momentum and prevent a further delay in the peace process, given increasing political turmoil in Israel that threatens to force Sharon's government into early elections and possibly further divert attention from talks with the Palestinians.
The failure to come to an agreement has been a source of deepening frustration for the Bush administration as well as Wolfensohn. Addressing a foreign policy group in Jerusalem on Monday, the former World Bank president said he found it "difficult to understand why it has been impossible to bring about more progress" on six specific issues in 20 weeks of negotiations, the Associated Press reported.
He warned that it would be difficult to maintain such "disproportionate interest" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the next six to 12 months in light of other global challenges.
Using language unusually frank for the diplomatic world, he said: "If you want to blow each other up, I have a nice house in Wyoming, and in New York and in Australia and I will watch with sadness as you do it.
"If you decide to pursue economic and social adjustments and try to make things move forward . . . I'll get in up to my ears in trying to help because I think it's worth doing. But the fundamental decision that has to be made is not mine," said Wolfensohn, the envoy of the so-called quartet -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- that designed the stalled Middle East peace plan known as the "road map."
Wolfensohn recently warned of the dire impact on the Palestinian economy caused in large part by limits on movement, with tons of produce rotting in warehouses. An estimated 70 percent of Palestinians in Gaza are unemployed.
Among the disputed issues on Rafah are Israel's demand to have computers and cameras to monitor people and goods making the crossing, Israelis officials say.
Another issue is a possible Israeli blacklist of Palestinians who might not be allowed to cross, according to Palestinian and U.S. officials. At least 20 percent of Palestinians have been detained or jailed at some point by the Israelis, said Diana Buttu, an adviser to Abbas, and Israelis might limit their ability to cross the border.
The Palestinians have objected that Israel is still trying to control Gaza despite its pullout. "It's difficult to explain to our people that they have been liberated when they are occupied by proxy," another member of Abbas's circle of advisers said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Besides Rafah, the Wolfensohn proposal suggested opening Gaza's Karni crossing to 150 trucks each day to allow commercial traffic into Israel, beginning bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank on Dec. 15 and stationing European monitors at the border crossings. Still undetermined is exactly how much authority the Europeans would be given in dealing with suspicious people or material.
Israel has pressed for safeguards in part because of the Palestinians' failure to disarm and arrest extremists and to end violence since the Gaza withdrawal, Israeli officials say. Abbas had pledged to create a single arm of the law, ending a period of uncontrolled militias and multiple and sometimes competing official security forces. But radicals have continued to fire rockets into Israel from Gaza.
Tension between the two sides was underscored Monday when Israeli troops killed Amjad Hanawi, the senior commander in the northern West Bank for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, at a time when Rice was in Jerusalem. The Bush administration has opposed Israel's practice of targeted assassinations.
Many bigger issues, including Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem, are still a long way from being discussed. In a subtle nudge at Israel's continuing construction of Jewish settlements, Rice said Monday that the United States had "made it clear that there should be no activity that prejudges a final status agreement."