Rice Pushes for Accord on Rafah Crossing; Split Persists over Role of Hamas in Elections

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Byline: Joshua Mitnick, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …