Rice on visit to ensure future peace talks

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a tour of the Middle East on Wednesday as part of an effort to lay the groundwork for future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as the US administration faces its final months in office.


WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to the Middle East on Wednesday to set the stage for future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that both sides acknowledge will not produce an agreement this year.

The decision to hold an Israeli election in three months has effectively killed U.S. President George W. Bush's goal of securing a peace deal this year to end the six-decade conflict.

While Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are expected to continue, Israel's political uncertainty and Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday leave the Bush administration with limited influence in its waning days.

U.S. officials have said Rice, on a four-day trip to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt, has no intention of floating her own proposals to advance a last-minute deal.

Rather, she will try to prepare for a fresh start by the new Israeli government that will take office after the Feb. 10 Israeli parliamentary election and the incoming Obama administration, which takes office on Jan. 20.

"We're going to try to put this process in the best possible place going forward so that whomever comes next can formulate their policies, take a look at the process, and possibly use it, take it further," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

Asked if this was a tacit admission that Bush would fail in his objective of getting a deal on paper this year, a U.S. official who asked not to be named said: "That's implied."


Despite extensive Israeli-Palestinian talks, there have been no signs of tangible progress on the thorniest issues, the the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Rice plans to meet senior Israeli and Palestinian officials before visiting the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- will be briefed by both sides.

With no Israeli-Palestinian deal in sight, she was considering issuing her own statement summing up the outcome of the talks, a senior Israeli official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rice's focus during her visit would be to ensure the peace process continues after Bush leaves office.

"They don't intend to close the door" to a deal, the official said, but he noted that both Israeli and the Palestinian leaders have publicly conceded that a deal this year is out of reach.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the senior U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, on Tuesday that the peace process should continue but that Washington must not expect Israel to take "shortcuts" to reach a deal, an aide to Livni said.

Livni, the head of the centrist Kadima party, is a leading contender to succeed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, along with conservative former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal critic of the peace process.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor party, also a former prime minister, trails in opinion polls and is seen as a dark horse candidate to replace Olmert, who plans to step down because of a corruption scandal.

Rice is expected to meet all four Israelis, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on the trip, which U.S. officials said is not likely to be her last to the region before she steps down in January.

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