Israel, PA at Stalemate Over Deal on Gaza Strip Crossings

Quartet envoy Wolfensohn close to decision to return home, says next 72 hours critical for his mission.

Quartet special Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn on Sunday called the next 72 hours "critical to his mission" in a meeting with the managers of the Karni cargo terminal, which has failed to yield any results so far.

Wolfenson added he is frustrated by the lack of change in the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians and the risk that the Gaza Strip will become a huge prison. Wolfensohn said without progress in talks, he would consider going home.

He said he planned to report his concerns to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

A high-level meeting Sunday slated to reach Israeli-Palestinian agreement on operating the Rafah crossing ended in a stalemate. Wolfensohn met with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and PA Minister Mohammed Dahlan, but did not resolve the key disputes: Israel's demand for information on those entering via the crossing in time to thwart the entry of those involved in terror. According to Israeli sources, the Palestinians toughened their stance at the meeting.

Wolfensohn tried to increase pressure on the sides, emphasizing that he wants to reach an agreement on the crossing this week. He said Israel is entrenching itself in security considerations, transforming the Gaza Strip into an enormous prison.

Rice will inform Israeli officials on Monday that opening the crossings is important for strengthening PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whom she is to meet this afternoon in Ramallah.

At the terminal, Wolfensohn warned of permanent serious damage to Israel if the agricultural produce in Gaza greenhouses, including those in Gush Katif, spoils due to Israeli limits on truck passages at the Karni crossing. He was also displeased with delays caused on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

The terminal managers told him about the rather significant number of explosive devices discovered in cargo containers on their way to Israel via the Karni terminal. Wolfensohn said his frustration stems from a lack of decisions to operate the Gaza airport and seaport, limits on Palestinian travel in the West Bank and a lack of progress in removing demolition debris from the evacuated settlements.

He also noted his disappointment that Israelis don't share his sense of urgency in resolving these problems, which threaten to deepen unemployment in Gaza and increase hatred of Israel.

Wolfensohn told the terminal staff that he knows they are not the problem but the solution, implying that responsibility for missing the opportunity lies with Israel's politicians.

Earlier, Wolfensohn visited the Palestinian side and the greenhouses. He toured the terminal and saw new security arrangements in place since the disengagement.

In a Thursday meeting with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Wolfensohn said, "The time factor is critical," and criticized Israel and the Palestinians for not exhausting negotiations on the crossings and other matters in the past five months.

Shalom said Israel is interested in opening the Rafah crossing once security considerations are handled. He said EU representatives should have enforcement authority at the crossing. The EU has said its personnel at the crossing will not have the authority to make arrests.