TEL AVIV: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday all but conceded that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by a year-end deadline is no longer possible.
But she also said upon arriving here that it is important to maintain momentum and support for the negotiations so that new governments in both Israel and the United States have “a firm foundation to continue to the talks next year. Rice is making her eighth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since the sides set the target for reaching an agreement at last November’s summit at Annapolis, Md., Rice said political uncertainty in Israel is the main complication to the goal.
“I’ve learned never to predict in this business, she said, “but it is clear we’re in a different situation now because Israel is going to elections.
The country is set to hold new elections in February after current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being forced from office for a corruption scandal.
“It is our expectation that the Annapolis process has laid groundwork which should make possible the establishment of a Palestinian state when the political circumstances permit, Rice added. “I think that whatever happens by the end of the year, you’ve got a firm foundation for quickly moving this forward to conclusion.
Although Rice refused to absolutely rule out the chance of an agreement by year’s end, her remarks reflect the first time that a Bush administration official has publicly not held out hope that the deadline could be met.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have long said they believe the year-end deadline is unrealistic.
“We’ll see where they are at the end of the year, said Rice, vowing to “work on this with the parties until the day that we leave.
Rice has been making the same twin challenges to Israel and the Palestinians on more than 20 largely fruitless journeys to the region during her tenure as secretary of state: Israel should loosen its grip on the West Bank and the Palestinians should tighten theirs on militants.
The talks that began in Annapolis, Md., have produced few tangible results and are expected to be placed on hold for at least several months during the US transition from Bush to President-elect Barack Obama. In addition, Israel will hold elections on Feb. 10 and there are questions about the tenure of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose opponents claim his term expires in January.
Rice will see Abbas and Olmert, along with the chief negotiators from both sides, on Thursday and Friday before visiting Jenin, the West Bank town where Palestinians retook security control early this year on Saturday.
Israel and the Palestinians have agreed on key principles, such as a land swap, but gaps remain wide on core issues, including the partition of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. -Associated Press writer Karin Laub contributed to this report.