Rice presides over allnight negotiations

JERUSALEM (AP) РCondoleezza Rice was up all night in her Jerusalem hotel.

The U.S. secretary of state huddled with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in her ninth floor suite, passing around a laptop computer, going through every word and comma on a proposed deal on Gaza border crossings.

At 10:05, an agreement was clinched – a major achievement for the Bush administration that some hope will encourage the U.S. to become more actively involved in Mideast peacemaking after years of a hands-off approach.

The deal ostensibly was about technical issues, such as truck quotas at a Gaza-Israel crossing and surveillance cameras at another passage, but has far-reaching consequences. It redefined Israeli-Palestinian relations, bruised after nearly five years of fighting, and gave fenced-in Palestinian control of a border for the first time. It also marked the first breakthrough since Israel’s pullout from Gaza in September.

Having staked her prestige on getting a deal, Rice was a stern referee. “We felt that Rice will not accept any failure, and she insisted that there should be an agreement,” said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath.

A smiling Rice announced the agreement in a news conference Tuesday morning. She said she’d only had two hours of sleep, noting that others had gotten none.

Only a day earlier, agreement had appeared out of reach.

The top international mediator, James Wolfensohn, griped publicly about how little effort the two sides seemed to be making after 20 weeks of talks, and warned that he was on the verge of going home. “If you want to blow each other up, I have a nice house in Wyoming, and in New York and in Australia and I will watch with sadness as you do it,” he said Monday.

At about the same time, Rice decided to put off her departure – she was to have left Israel on Monday afternoon – and to get the negotiators together again.

Initially, Rice summoned Israeli and Palestinian teams separately to her suite. In a later stage, the laptop was passed around, with each side typing its suggestions into the text.

The Palestinians said talks hit a deadlock at about 11 p.m., saying the Israeli team began backtracking on some issues. Frantic telephone diplomacy ensued. The Palestinian delegation sought help from Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and even former U.S. President Bill Clinton who is in the region.

At 3 a.m. (0100 GMT) Tuesday, the Palestinian team woke up Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who was in neighboring Jordan, and told him an agreement was close.

After a pre-dawn break, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz arrived at the hotel, spending 90 minutes with Rice to sign off on the deal. After Mofaz left, three Palestinian negotiators were showed the final agreement.

Characterizing the talks, Rice said it was a little like football. “I am also tempted to say, as a football fan, that the last yard is the hardest and we experienced that a bit today,” she said.

Rice said she’s still a big believer in letting Israelis and Palestinians work out their problems by themselves, but acknowledged that they could not always be left to their own devices.

“From time to time … it (negotiations) may need me, or maybe even a higher authority,” she said, pointing upward, then quickly explained: “Meaning the president.”