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Rice: Israelis, Palestinians, Near Accord on Gaza Checkpoint

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas Monday, in an effort to revive peace efforts stalled by violence after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. Ms. Rice said the sides are close to an agreement opening a key crossing point from Gaza to Egypt for Palestinian travelers and goods.

Ms. Rice met Prime Minister Sharon over breakfast in Jerusalem, then went by motorcade to the Palestinian government center in Ramallah to meet Mr. Abbas, in an effort to revive a peace process stalled after Israel's September withdrawal from Gaza.

The secretary's visit came at a critical point in long-running negotiations, led by international "quartet" envoy James Wolfensohn, aimed at re-opening the Rafah crossing point between Gaza and Egypt, which would provide a critically needed outlet for Palestinian trade and travel.

Mr. Wolfensohn, a former World Bank president who has been expressing frustration over the talks in recent days, has tabled a set of proposals aimed at easing Israeli security concerns about traffic through Rafah.

Saab Erekat, a senior adviser to Mr. Abbas, told reporters in Ramallah the Palestinian side has accepted the bridging ideas from Mr. Wolfensohn but Israel thus far has not.

At a news conference capping two hours of talks with the Palestinian leadership, Secretary Rice said an agreement was close and that an agreement could be concluded quickly with good faith by the sides.

"A number of these are highly technical issues," she said. "A number of them are also very complicated issues concerning security, and so it is not surprising that it takes some time to work through these. But when I said earlier that I believed that with will and some creativity, an agreement to what the envoy has proposed or some elements of what he has proposed as a way forward, should be within sight, because what is needed is agreement on how to improve freedom of movement for the Palestinian people now in the wake of the Gaza withdrawal."

Israeli officials said the compromise package would included the stationing of security personnel from the European Union to "augment" Palestinians involved in policing the Rafah complex.

They said there continued to be differences over monitoring equipment that might also be placed at Rafah, but said an agreement can be finished in a few days if not sooner.

Israel closed the Rafah crossing shortly after its Gaza troop withdrawal, after crowds of Palestinians seeking to visit Egypt overwhelmed Palestinian and Egyptian police creating scenes of chaos along the border.

At the news conference, Mr. Abbas said emphatically that Israeli personnel would not be stationed in Gaza under any scenario.

He also reiterated that the Palestinian Authority is committed to disarming militant factions under the principle of "one authority, one gun," and said the groups would not be allowed to maintain arms after Palestinian elections in January.

In a policy address in Jerusalem late Sunday, Ms. Rice said a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace is a realistic possibility, if the sides take their responsibilities seriously.

She said the Palestinians had to fight terrorism and advance democratic reform, while calling on Israel to ease travel curbs on Palestinians and avoid actions that would pre-judge terms of a final settlement.

After the political talks Monday, Ms. Rice attended a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

She was then to fly to Jordan to meet King Abdullah and express condolences and U.S. political support for Jordan following last week's terrorist attacks in Amman that killed more than 50 people including three U.S. citizens.