Rice wants Mideast work to go on though no deal near
AFP - Friday, November 7
TEL AVIV (AFP) - - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played down chances of a breakthrough in Middle East peace talks this year but urged Israel and the Palestinians to work on the outlines of a deal.
"I think that whatever happens by the end of the year, you've got a firm foundation for quickly moving forward to a conclusion," she told journalists aboard her plane to Tel Aviv where she kicked off a four-day regional tour
"I think at some point it will be important to work to wrap all of that work up, one way or another," Rice said.
But asked whether that means she will have a document to present when the new US administration takes over on January 20, Rice said: "How we do that is still an open question."
She admitted Israel and the Palestinians may be unable to achieve the goal of a peace agreement by the time Barack Obama moves into the White House, and pointed out the peace process has been affected by Israel's decision to hold snap elections on February 20.
"Obviously Israel is in the middle of elections and that is a constraint on the ability of any government to conclude what is the core conflict for Israel and the Palestinians," Rice said.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on Thursday took the same line on prospects for a deal, saying: "No, we do not think that it's likely" that it would happen before the end of the year.
Israeli opposition leaders have called for the peace process to be put on hold, arguing that the caretaker government Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will head until after the elections has only limited powers.
Rice remained upbeat about the future of the peace process even though it has produced no tangible results since she helped relaunch it after a seven-year hiatus at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007.
"I think we can sustain momentum," said Rice, who is on her 19th visit to the Middle East in two years and the eighth since the Annapolis conference.
"The US has a national interest in sustaining that progress. We believe that it is essential to the security of Israel," she said at a joint news conference with Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister and a frontrunner in the race for the prime minister's job.
Rice also held talks with Olmert, and was to meet on Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
She planned to visit the town of Jenin to highlight the successful deployment of Palestinian security forces in the northern West Bank city.
"One of the reasons that we are going to Jenin is that an under-reported and undervalued element of the process is the creation of the institutions of a future Palestinian state," Rice said.
During her four-day visit to the region, Rice will make a brief trip to Jordan and travel to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for a meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
The borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of 4.6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendents are at the heart of the negotiations.
The division of the Palestinian territories into a West Bank run by the US-backed Palestinian Authority and a Gaza Strip run by Hamas, which seized power violently there in June 2007, also has hobbled the peace talks.
Violence again erupted in Gaza on the eve of Rice's visit as militants fired a barrage of rockets and mortar rounds at southern Israel on Wednesday after Israeli troops killed seven fighters in the besieged territory.
Nevertheless, Israel said on Thursday it hopes for an extension of a six-month truce that went into effect on June 19.
The Hamas rulers of Gaza said Palestinian factions would consider the proposal.
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