- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

TEL AVIV — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped up pressure on Israel yesterday to finalize an accord with the Palestinians on opening the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt and on easing opposition to allowing Islamic militants to participate in Palestinian legislative elections.

At the end of a day of shuttle diplomacy between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Miss Rice postponed by a day her trip to an Asia-Pacific summit in South Korea to push for a deal permitting Palestinians free passage at the Rafah crossing while giving Israel access to information on militants’ movements.

Failure to reach an agreement likely would leave Gazans feeling imprisoned in the tiny coastal strip of land despite Israel’s withdrawal in September.

Miss Rice, who called the remaining differences “technical,” met separately with Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in a suite overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.

“The negotiations are intense,” said one U.S. official, who asked not to be named because the talks were at a sensitive stage.

Although Miss Rice scheduled the visit to participate in Israel’s observance yesterday of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, her trip comes on the heels of pointed criticism by former World Bank chief James D. Wolfensohn, the Middle East envoy for the United States and other Western negotiators, of Israel’s reluctance to open up Gaza passages.

The Ha’aretz newspaper’s Web site reported that Miss Rice implored Mr. Sharon to make a gesture that would boost the standing of Mr. Abbas.

“We would never ask you to do something that would compromise Israel’s security, but we need to think how to help [Mr. Abbas] some other way,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.

The Rafah crossing has been closed since the Israeli withdrawal, save for a few days when Israel has permitted passage for the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. According to press reports, European monitors are expected to oversee the passage as a compromise.

“If they are concerned about smuggling weapons, they have the Europeans,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “Why are Israelis making all of the fuss about Rafah; I thought the Israelis left.”

The Israeli-U.S. talks also revealed differences over the participation of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for January.

Mr. Sharon reiterated Israel’s opposition to Hamas running for office as long as the militants refuse to lay down their weapons or annul a charter calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

“While we fully support the president’s democratization efforts, we will not help Hamas,” Mr. Sharon said. “We will not help those who murder Jews even if they participate in the elections. Nowhere in the world would they be allowed to participate in elections.”

Although Israel says it will try to avoid interfering with Palestinian elections, Mr. Sharon warned that security forces would arrest Hamas activists who attempt to move between West Bank towns and villages during the campaign. Palestinians say such a decision would backfire and stir up sympathy for Hamas.

Miss Rice said Hamas is more likely to disarm after the group joins the Palestinian political establishment, citing militants in Northern Ireland and Angola who laid down their weapons because of international pressure.

Miss Rice was joined at the memorial ceremony at Mr. Rabin’s Jerusalem grave by former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer and former Secretary of State James A Baker III.

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