Secretary Rice's night of negotiation

No sooner had the American media applauded this week's border-crossing agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, than Middle East watchers began singing a cautionary song. They called the accord a small step excessively celebrated, and found it ominous that an item this low on the totem pole required personal intervention from the US secretary of State.

Experience in the region certainly argues for caution. And it's true that the accord marks only a first step in opening up the Palestinian territories so that people and goods can move freely to jobs and markets on the outside. The deal reached Tuesday mostly concerns only one border crossing - Rafah, between Gaza and Egypt - and allows for the building of a Gaza seaport. For this, Condoleezza Rice pulled a near all-nighter of negotiations, delaying her trip to Asia by a day.

But the accolades for Secretary of State Rice and the outcome of her efforts are actually well-deserved, and not just for the foundation the agreement lays for further steps related to access to the territories.

It's encouraging that the deal was reached despite coming at a time of uncertainty in Israeli and Palestinian politics. Palestinians face parliamentary elections Jan. 25, and it looks as if the militant Hamas party will make a credible showing.

Israeli politics, meanwhile, have been churning over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral pullout of Israelis from Gaza, completed in September. He survived a challenge from within his own Likud party, but now, under the new leadership of Amir Peretz, the Labor party is quitting its coalition with the Sharon government. Israeli elections will be held in either February or March.

Given the volatile politics, it would have been easy, after months of fruitless negotiations, to wait for calmer political seas. But while that may have been tempting, since when are Israeli or Palestinian politics calm? This deal shows how important it is to press on during great uncertainty.

The border agreement also involves the European Union and Egypt. That's instructive. The way the crossing will work is that Palestinians will control one side of the border, Egyptians the other. Europeans will monitor the crossing. And Israelis will receive closed-circuit TV feeds of the activity. The deal couldn't have been done without the Europeans and Egyptians, and their presence as confidence builders speaks to the need for their continued participation and support as Palestinians move down the road to eventual statehood.

Finally, while this deal still leaves many issues unresolved - including the critical one of a Gaza airport - it lays the first plank over a very wide and central divide in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: freedom of movement vs. security. Economic growth and political stability won't be possible without easy Palestinian access to markets. Yet Israelis understandably fear this means a free flow of Palestinian terrorists.

That Secretary Rice had to hammer this first plank in place should serve as a reminder that high-level US involvement is needed to construct accords between these two deeply mistrusting parties. •

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