Opening Up A Little Bit
Secretary of State Rice closes a rare Israeli-Palestinian deal
JERUSALEM--While the Bush administration was leading the world's applause for Israel's tumultuous late-summer exit from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians raised the cry that they were being locked inside a teeming, impoverished "prison." True, Israeli settlers and soldiers were gone, but the 1.3 million residents left behind were not allowed to cross Gaza's borders with Israel or even with Egypt. Nor could they build a seaport on their Mediterranean coast or an airport on their land.
The Israelis stuck to security requirements necessitated by the rockets fired from Gaza at their border towns and by the branch that al Qaeda had opened in Gaza alongside those of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Palestinian civilians were left to seethe. This was not what the Bush administration had in mind, but with so many other distractions, it was not eager to get in the middle of another Israeli-Palestinian dispute, choosing instead to file away the Gaza "disengagement" as a foreign-policy success.
Mistrust. But the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has a way of insinuating itself back into the schedules of U.S. leaders. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found herself up until 5 a.m. in a Jerusalem hotel suite, cajoling the two eternally mistrustful interlocutors into agreeing on a way to ease the pressure in Gaza. The urgency of the moment was impressed upon Rice by James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president and current international envoy on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. He reportedly also spoke of Gaza as a "prison" and threatened to walk away from the months-long negotiations if the two sides didn't get off the dime. At a news conference, he reminded Rice that when the peace process inevitably grinds to a halt, "one needs not envoys but secretaries of state." Promising the administration's abiding attention to Holy Land diplomacy, Rice said, "From time to time, I suspect it will need me or maybe even higher authorities--meaning the president."
The agreement--one of the rare accords struck between the two sides in 0the past five years of intifada--allows Gazans to travel to and from Egypt through a border crossing controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Soon, convoys of Gazan buses and trucks escorted by Israeli security forces are to begin commuting to the West Bank. The whole deal, of course, could be suspended by Israel over a single suicide bomber.
Still, the thinking on all sides was that letting Gaza fester indefinitely was to risk something even worse than a stray terrorist: the resurgence of full-scale Palestinian guerrilla war. Also on everyone's mind is the Palestinian legislative election planned for January 25 and the need to give President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate with a tenuous grip on power, something to show his people to keep them from voting for Hamas. Evidently, what was required to move the negotiators from thinking to doing was a clarifying visit from Rice.
Higher help. There was no ceremony this time, no meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The peace process has become a dry, perfunctory affair, hardly worth the name. With Israel having lost faith in negotiations and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, preferring now to fix its borders unilaterally and to fight terrorism with force rather than diplomacy, the emerging state of Palestine is in a bind. It is caught between the actions of Palestinian terrorists, who seemingly have too much strength and popular support for Abbas's forces to control, and Israel, which pursues its own security needs with little regard for the consequences for the fledging nation.
To preserve the success of disengagement, to keep Gaza from degenerating into an anarchic, failed state-in-the-making, it appears that the U.S. secretary of state and even "higher authorities" are going to have to remain prepared to pull all-nighters.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.