Rice's Risks Paid Off in Brokering Gaza Accord

BUSAN, South Korea -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spent all day and night successfully brokering an accord on Tuesday on security controls at a Gaza border crossing, suddenly elevating the Bush administration's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a new level.

Until now U.S. President George W. Bush and Rice have avoided taking risks in the conflict, confining their diplomacy to consultations, exhortations, drive-by visits to the region and documents like the "road map" to a Palestinian state, which calls for several steps by Palestinians and Israelis, few of which have occurred.

What changed this week, State Department officials said, was mounting alarm at the bitter impasse over the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal last summer and fear of more instability and frustration that could lead to a rebuke of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in parliamentary elections in January.

That sense of urgency, driven by warnings from Washington's Arab and European allies as well as from U.S. envoys, prompted Rice's unusual personal participation in the negotiations in Jerusalem. That resulted in the accord announced early Tuesday morning giving Palestinians control over a Gaza crossing, with monitors from the European Union.

The Arab and European allies pressed for more U.S. efforts to untangle the issues paralyzing the peace negotiations. Diplomats from allied countries have said the credibility of Bush and Rice is at risk, and they have besieged Rice to seize the opportunity or lose what they regard as the last chance of making peace for years to come.

"A lot of diplomacy is about when things are ripe for movement," a senior State Department official said. "There was the sense that now was the time to really capitalize on the situation." The official insisted on anonymity under the department's ground rules for briefings.

Another form of pressure came from James Wolfensohn, the Middle East envoy of the so-called quartet consisting of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Wolfensohn had begun blaming a lack of U.S. involvement for the impasse behind the scenes.

"If you are an envoy of the quartet you have a certain amount of possibilities in negotiations," Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank, said in Jerusalem on Tuesday. "If you are the secretary of state of the United States, I would have to say, there is a little more clout associated with it. And to push it over the edge one needs not envoys, but secretaries of state."

The challenge for Rice now is to keep the process going. Israelis and Palestinians are now likely to demand more U.S. involvement on a range of issues, from the Palestinians' call for Israel to ease its presence in the West Bank to the Israeli demand for a crackdown on Hamas and other militant groups. Rice took office early this year amid criticism that the Bush administration had relied on force in its first term. "The time for diplomacy is now," she said then.

But she has effectively outsourced the negotiations on North Korea to a consortium of partners led by China and left dealings with Iran to a team led by Britain, France and Germany. On the Middle East now, the United States is front and center.

Probably the most difficult aspect of Washington's enhanced role is that it could lead to more U.S. pressure on Israel. This week, Rice leaned heavily on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his aides to ease Israeli controls over the people and goods going in and out of the Gaza Strip. How much pressure she can exert on other matters depends on a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian situation, something that is outside U.S. control.

If suicide or rocket attacks resume, with Gaza as a base, U.S. pressure on Israel to freeze the expansion of its settlements and the building of its security barrier, or to lift checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, will probably be out of the question.

When Rice arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday, aides said she was determined that this trip was going to be different, in part because of Wolfensohn's dire warnings about the deteriorating situation.

"We're going to get this done while I'm here," Rice told Sharon and Abbas in separate meetings, according to State Department officials. The two leaders' reaction, the officials said, was skepticism, and there were suggestions that she narrow the scope of what she wanted to accomplish in one day of talks.

Some issues have indeed been put off -- not simply the details of carrying out the agreement but also plans for an airport for the Palestinians. Also deferred are the issues of Israel's presence in the West Bank and actions that the Americans wanted Abbas to undertake to disarm militant groups. Rebuffing U.S. requests, he has said he cannot confront those armed groups until after the elections in January.

On Tuesday, Rice, who got two hours of sleep Monday night, was getting some rest. "We have a long road ahead, a long road ahead," Rice said earlier in the day. "I have to say as a football fan, sometimes the last yard is the hardest, and I think we experienced that today."