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Condi gets it

November 16, 2005

SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE has finally demonstrated what a little roll-up-your-sleeves diplomacy can achieve in the Middle East. Tuesday's agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on opening the borders of the Gaza Strip and allowing freer movement of Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza reflects Rice's involvement in advancing the peace process.

Rice was not the architect of the deal, which had been in the works for weeks. But she extended her stay in the region by a day and met throughout the night with negotiators to urge agreement. That's a welcome change from President Bush's first term, when the administration too often watched from the sidelines as the intifada raged.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government removed settlers and troops from Gaza in August and September after nearly four decades of occupation. But if Palestinians cannot move people and goods from the narrow, seaside strip, the territory will remain an economic sinkhole.

The agreement calls for opening the border with Egypt on Nov. 25. European monitors will supervise border operations, with Israel receiving closed-circuit TV transmissions of the crossings. That is important for Israel's security, allowing it to guard against the entrance of terrorists and weapons. The deal also will allow Palestinians to travel between the West Bank and Gaza in bus convoys starting in December. Travel between the two territories is needed for a viable Palestinian state, which all sides say is the goal.

The agreement should pay dividends for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is being challenged by Hamas, the combination political party and terrorist organization, in January parliamentary elections. Abbas needs to ensure that terrorists do not attack Israelis. Such attacks could lead Sharon to postpone implementation of the agreement. If all goes as planned, Abbas will be able to demonstrate concrete progress to Palestinian voters and hold out the hope of more gains.

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn played an important part in the agreement, mediating talks on border crossings and other economic issues. Wolfensohn also was willing to criticize both sides when he thought they were stalling. But the final agreement required shoves from Rice. Hours before announcing the pact, Rice said that results would come "with will and with some creativity."

The Bush administration criticized President Clinton for being overly involved in the Middle East peace process, then went too far in the other direction. The administration's success Tuesday should show the president the importance of diplomacy and top-level involvement in issues of great importance to this country. Rice already understands.

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