A Middle East peace deal is unlikely by the end of the year, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Saturday, while urging Israelis and Palestinians to continue US-backed negotiations.
"We were supposed to get the document, not a final result but something, before the end of the year. But now we all know it will take a little bit longer," Kouchner told reporters in the West Bank town of Jenin.
"I don't know if we will see the Palestinian state before the end of the year, but I know this is absolutely a key and necessary -- we will get the Palestinian state."
Kouchner made the remarks after meeting with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad at the start of a two-day visit to Israel and the occupied territories.
Fayyad praised France, which holds the rotating European Union presidency, for its support of US-backed peace talks relaunched last November, calling Kouchner a "friend of the Palestinian people."
Negotiations have made little progress since they were formally relaunched to great fanfare after a seven-year hiatus, with the two sides remaining deeply divided on the thorniest issues of the decades-old conflict.
On Sunday Kouchner will meet outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is seeking to form a new coalition government following her election last month to head the ruling Kadima party.
Kouchner will urgently renew a call to Israel to reduce restrictions on travel in the Palestinian territories, which is stifling the local economy, a senior French diplomat said.
The minister also intends to stress to his Israeli hosts the importance of freezing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the official added.
Paris wants the trip to be "a moment of consultation and dialogue" allowing pressure to be kept up on both sides, a senior French official said.
Kouchner joined Fayyad on a visit to Jenin, once a hotbed of militant violence and now the focus of a widening security crackdown in the West Bank that has been praised by Israel and the United States.
The visit follows a meeting in New York last week of the Mideast Quartet (Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union) in which the group urged Israel and the Palestinians to seal a peace deal this year.
Negotiators have expressed hope that if a deal is not reached the next US president will continue to encourage the talks.
"The current (US) administration only became involved during the last year of George W Bush's second term. This is regrettable. We hope the new administration will involve itself straight away," a member of Kouchner's entourage said.
The minister also hopes to check on the results of the Paris conference on aid to the Palestinians held in December, at which more than 7.7 billion dollars in aid was pledged over the coming seven years.
Since then 1.4 billion dollars in direct budgetary support has been paid to the Palestinian Authority, according to French government figures.