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Rice Makes Push to End Two-Month Middle East Stalemate About Gaza

By Steven R. Weisman
THE NEW YORK TIMES


JERUSALEM

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice struggled into the early morning hours Tuesday to conclude what the administration hoped would be a broad agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to move people and goods in and out of Gaza and to take other steps to enhance Gaza’s viability.

Efforts to reach the agreement were aimed at opening several crossings from Gaza to Israel and Egypt while giving Israel a role in checking trucks, buses and individuals to guard against terrorist attacks. Negotiations had been tied up in a bitter impasse for more than two months on several technical issues related to access to Gaza.

The discussions represented an extraordinary personal effort in the Middle East that the Bush administration has not attempted in the last five years. Rice and her aides were closeted at 2 a.m. in her ninth-floor suite in the David Citadel Hotel here with two top aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Then, her aides took the elevator to the first floor to negotiate with two top aides to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

Earlier, Rice decided abruptly after a full day of talks to cancel her plans to travel to South Korea on Monday night, though she made a quick trip to Jordan to pay respects to those killed in hotel bombings in Amman last week.

Since President Bush took office, those advocating a more active role in the details of negotiating a Middle East peace agreement have been rebuffed repeatedly, in part because Bush and his aides had been disdainful of the highly visible but ultimately unsuccessful efforts by President Bill Clinton in the last weeks of his administration.

But now that Rice was thrust into the middle of negotiations herself, it appeared likely that she would stay in Jerusalem until there was at least a broad agreement, even if many details would have to be worked out later.

She and her aides were understood to be working with all sides on a lengthy document to be released later on Tuesday.

Throughout most of the day and night, James D. Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president and current Middle East envoy, accompanied U.S. officials in the negotiations. He has been working on details related to the crossings since earlier in the year, when withdrawal from Gaza was announced by Sharon. The withdrawal was completed in late summer.

But Wolfensohn more recently has been openly critical of the refusal of both sides to make concessions and to ensure Gaza area’s economic future by allowing it to export produce and other goods and send some of its people to jobs in Israel and the West Bank.

On Monday, Wolfensohn’s frustrations burst forth in a talk at a conference in Jerusalem, when he said he would leave his post if the two sides “want to blow each other up.”

People close to the talks, who declining to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly said that Rice had in effect replaced Wolfensohn as the negotiator and had drafted her own compromise document.