French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner offered greater European engagement with the Middle East on Saturday but said an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was unlikely by the end of the year.
"If the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Americans ask, we will answer positively that the European Union will play a bigger political role in the region," Kouchner said after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
But earlier in the day during a visit to the West Bank town of Jenin Kouchner said the slow-moving US-backed peace process was unlikely to meet its stated goal of a full agreement by the end of the year.
"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," he said.
The 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.
Kouchner met Abbas and other senior Palestinian officials on Saturday as part of a two-day visit to the region. France currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
On Sunday, Kouchner will meet outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is seeking to form a new coalition government after her election last month as leader of the ruling Kadima party.
Kouchner will again call on Israel to reduce restrictions on movement 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 occupied 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, another French official said.
Kouchner had earlier joined Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad on a visit to Jenin, once a militant hotbed and now the focus of a widening security crackdown that has been praised by Israel and the United States.
After their meeting in Ramallah, Abbas called for an expanded European role in the peace process.
"We ask for a greater political position from Europe, because it can play a role in the process, not as an alternative to the United States but a complement to it," Abbas told reporters.
Kouchner's visit follows a meeting last week of the Middle East quartet of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States which had urged Israel and the Palestinians to seal a peace deal this year.
But in a statement released last month, 21 aid agencies said the quartet was "losing its grip" on the peace process by not doing enough to rein in the growth of Jewish settlements and improve freedom of movement in the West Bank.
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 hoped 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.