How Rice Won a Mideast Deal

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PEDRO UGARTE / EPA

Secretary of State Rice announces a deal, flanked by the EU's Javier Solana and Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah Monday morning, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayad knew it was her 51st birthday. He said he had a present that wouldn't exceed the government gift limit. He reached into a brown paper supermarket bag and pulled out a shiny green bell pepper.

“These are really good,” Fayyad said. “These are not quite ready yet. In two more weeks they'll be ready for export. If we succeed, they'll be exported. And that will mean a lot to a bunch of farmers.”

Fayad didn't need to spell out the rest. Getting the pepper crop to market may have been as important for the Secretary of State as it was for Palestinian farmers: She considers a stable, self-sustaining Palestinian economy a cornerstone of the prospects for achieving peace via Palestinian statehood, and until other industries took root, Gaza's harvest would be a key component of the local economy.

Two weeks earlier, Rice had been warned by James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank chief sent by the U.S. and its allies as a special envoy to help reboot the Palestinian economy, that Gaza's harvest, which was almost due, would be likely to rot in warehouses. That was because Israel, which controls all access points into the Palestinian territories even after withdrawing from Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority had been unable to reach an agreement that would let inhabitants of the territories travel and trade. The two sides were inches from a deal, Wolfensohn said, but were hung up on details.

"We need to try to close it," Wolfensohn had urged Rice. "If you're the Secretary of State of the United States, I would have to say there's a little more clout associated with that. And therefore, to push it over the edge one needs not envoys but Secretaries of State."

Rice agreed. The Secretary of State, a diehard Cleveland Browns fan, put it this way: "Sometimes the last yard is the hardest." Also, she said, details weren't trivial: It wasn't unreasonable for Israelis to be obsessed with security, nor for Palestinians to be equally prickly about sovereignty and independence.

When she joined the talks, Israel was insisting that its own security personnel continue to screen the gateways, particularly the currently closed Rafah crossing linking Gaza to Egypt. The Israelis wanted to post surveillance cameras at the crossing to screen for suspicious individuals, weapons and even large sums of cash that could finance terror cells. But the Palestinians balked, arguing that this amounted to occupation by proxy.

Wolfensohn had proposed to break the deadlock by having European personnel police the Rafah crossing, but the Israelis still insisted on access to the surveillance camera video feeds and computer data streams at the crossing. Also, the Palestinians wanted to have final authority. The Palestinians also complained the harvest couldn't wait for the months it would take to comply with Israeli demands that they install state-of-the-art scanners to screen trucks. So Wolfensohn threatened to walk, leaving the two sides, as he recounted over the weekend, to "blow each other up."

On Monday, Rice met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as with other senior officials, and also with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, pressing both sides to find the "will and creativity" to open not only Rafah but all the gateways in and out of Gaza and the West Bank.

As the odds on achieving a deal fluctuated all day, Rice's stubborn side kicked into high gear. "I'm not going to leave here until we get an agreement," she told an aide. She decided to delay her departure for Asia and return to Jerusalem after paying a condolence call on Jordan's King Abdullah in response to the Amman terror attacks.

When she returned from Jordan around 10 p.m., success was far from certain. "It will take all the power of the United States to push this one," said a Palestinian official.

But Rice was, says a State Department negotiator, “totally relentless.” She deployed her full arsenal of pesuasive techniques alternating between charm, relentless badgering and the intimidating suggestion that the most trusted advisor of the most powerful leader in the world was not going to leave town until she got what she came for. "When she focuses on something," says a U.S. official present, "she will use whatever it takes."

She gathered with other U.S. diplomats and Palestinian representatives in her suite for intensive talks over three hours, using a secure laptop to make line-by-line changes in a draft "agreement on movement and access." A top-level Israeli team arrived at her hotel about 1 a.m., producing a round of "elevator diplomacy" between Israeli and Palestinian delegations ensconced on different floors of the hotel. While she waited for one group to go and the next to arrive, Rice, full of nervous energy, paced the hall, popping in on junior staffers as they typed or proof-read. “Condi never got tired, never lost her edge or here sense of humor,” says a State Department negotiator. By 4:30 am the parties had agreed in principle. Rice allowed herself a two-hour nap, then went back into meetings until the six-page agreement was ready for release, shortly after 10 a.m.

The document commits Israel to permit the immediate export of the pepper crop and the rest of the Gaza harvest "on an urgent basis." By Dec. 15, Israel agreed, Israeli border authorities would process 150 export trucks a day through the Karni commercial crossing into their territory, and by the end of next year, that number would increase to 400 trucks a day. Israel also agreed to allow the movement of bus convoys between Gaza and the West Bank starting Dec. 15, allowing travel between Palestinian territories physically separated by Israel.

Israel agreed to allow the Palestinians to begin building a seaport and not to interfere with its operation. The document also committed the sides to serious talks on the construction of a Palestinian airport.

The security-sovereignty deadlock was resolved in a compromise in which the Israelis agreed to cede responsibility for camera surveillance and watch-list screening at Rafah to European personnel, while the Palestinians accepted that the Europeans would have final authority to order extra searches and computer checks on people and vehicles traveling from Egypt to Gaza.

Condi Rice put her reputation on the line for this mission and, for the moment, it appears to have paid off. “That we could get this done opens an international passage for the Palestinians, the first time since 1967,” says a State Department official. “For 38 years, Israel has controlled entry and egress for every Palestinian in the territories. And now they get to do it themselves, approximately 60 days after the Israelis departed Gaza.”

The Americans didn't get everything they asked for. “But we got a lot,” the official says. “What we wanted to do here is prove that things could be put together.”

The Secretary of State eschewed terms such as "breakthrough," warning that the test of the deal lay in its implementation. She has asked Wolfensohn to monitor progress and report to her every two weeks, vowing to return if necessary. "I think there's a chance," she said cautiously, "that if we can get through what were issues about how Gaza is going to operate, perhaps we can return to the bigger issues."

Rice's all-nighter demonstrated the extent of hands-on diplomatic effort required to get the two parties to achieve what she conceded was just one step toward the goal of establishing a Palestinian state that can live in harmony with its Israeli neighbor. Once the drama of its 13th-hour surprise ending fades, the episode may be a sobering reminder of how long and arduous the journey remains—and of how much more may be required of the Bush administration and its successors if progress is to be sustained.