JERUSALEM — Under intense lobbying from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators edged toward an agreement early today on opening a border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Talks extended well into the predawn hours as the two sides debated the central sticking point: how much control Israel would retain over the crossing now that it has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip and handed the territory to the Palestinians. In a sign of the Bush administration’s desire for a breakthrough on the issue, Rice delayed her planned departure for Asia to continue talks.
The crossing, at Rafah along Gaza’s southern border, is viewed by Palestinian leaders as an essential gateway for Gaza’s 1.3 million citizens and a potentially critical port for trade. It is the only direct opening from Gaza to the rest of the Arab world.
Rice’s day began Monday morning when she met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. After meeting with Abbas, she said the two sides had made headway, but not enough. “With some will, and some creativity, agreement … should be within sight,” she said.
A senior State Department official who declined to be identified said that, as the negotiations progressed, the issue broadened beyond Rafah to include border crossings linking Gaza with Israel that have also been closed or restricted since Israel’s pullout two months ago.
Monday evening, Rice left Jerusalem briefly, flying to Amman to offer condolences and express solidarity with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the wake of last week’s hotel bombings. After meeting the king and laying a wreath on the Radisson hotel’s steps, Rice returned to Israel to continue talks.
Rice said international envoy James Wolfensohn, who has mediated talks on border crossings and other economic issues since the Israeli pullout, had put forward new U.S. proposals to bridge differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The proposals called for the presence of European Union monitors at Rafah.
But differences remain over how much control the monitors would exercise and whether Israel should maintain even indirect oversight of border movement through a database of crossers or surveillance cameras.
“We need to augment the Palestinian (security) weakness without insulting the Palestinians,” said an Israeli government official who declined to be identified because of the subject’s sensitivity. “We know they will stop somebody carrying (weapons), but if someone big in a militant group walks across with $50,000 in a satchel, that’s five suicide bombers.”
Palestinians fear Israelis want to block entry of travelers who were previously arrested by Israel or suspected of militant activity.
“They want us to be the police of Israel,” said a senior Palestinian official, who declined to be identified by name.