Rice says Middle East peace talks will continue

RAMALLAH, West Bank — It won’t happen on President Bush’s watch, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says his promise of an independent Palestinian state will be met.

President-elect Obama shares the goal of Palestinian statehood and has pledged to tackle Mideast peacemaking earlier and more enthusiastically than Bush did.

While not achieving their ultimate goal before Bush leaves office in January, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have laid the groundwork for success as long as President-elect Obama and the two parties follow through on incremental progress made, Rice said Friday.

“The distance to that peace has been narrowed, although the peace has not yet been achieved,” Rice said halfway through what could be her final mission to Israel and the West Bank.

“It is not surprising that a conflict that has now gone on for decades may take some more to resolve, but the right elements are there,” she said.

It was nearly a year ago, in late November 2007, that Bush convened an international peace summit in Annapolis, Md., and announced that he would help shepherd an agreement to end the longstanding conflict before the end of this year.

Rice has made eight trips to the region since, but has not been directly involved in negotiations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting regularly, despite frustration over the pace and scope of the talks on the Palestinian side and internal political turmoil on the Israeli side.

“We knew … that if that agreement was not reached by the end of the year, that there would be those who would say that the Annapolis process, the negotiations, had failed,” Rice said during a news conference with the U.S.-backed Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

“In fact, it is quite the opposite,” she insisted.

“The Annapolis process has laid the foundations for the eventual establishment of the state of Palestine. The Annapolis process … is vital, it is vibrant, and it is continuing, and I am quite certain that, carried to its conclusion, it will produce a state of Palestine.”

A possible change of government in Israel and the transition to a new U.S. administration could stall the talks for months.

In Israel’s Feb. 10 election, hardline leader Benjamin Netanyahu is competing against moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads the Israeli negotiating team.

Rice and other Mideast mediators will meet in Egypt on Sunday to get a progress report — though not substantive because the discussions have been secret — from Livni and Palestinian negotiators. They are expected to pledge their continued support for the process.

The international quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia — is also expected to reaffirm its support for the Annapolis framework.

The talks thus far have produced few tangible results, but Rice insisted there has been progress, and she held out hope that with the commitment of the Obama administration, the Israelis and Palestinians, a peace agreement is not too far off.

“While we may not yet be at the finish line, I am quite certain that if Palestinians and Israelis stay on the Annapolis course, they are going to cross that finish line and can do so relatively soon,” she said.

Abbas also said the past year has not been in vain.

“We have not lost time. We have used every minute,” Abbas said. “That will allow us to move with a new (U.S.) administration and a new Israeli administration to peace.”

He urged the incoming U.S. administration “to start immediately dealing with the Middle East issue … so as not to waste time, without any benefit.”

“We hope that the new administration will follow up on this and hear this point of view,” he said.

Abbas complained to Rice about continued construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a violation of Israel’s peace obligations.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas expressed concern that Israel might use a possible political vacuum ahead of the Obama inauguration and its own elections to accelerate settlement building.

Rice criticized settlement activity, saying, “Both actions and announcements (of new plans) are damaging to the atmosphere of the negotiations.”

Earlier Friday, Rice met in Jerusalem with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu later said he’s proposing a “new path to peace that will combine political negotiations with rapid economic development for the Palestinians.”

However, Netanyahu’s positions could make a peace deal harder to achieve, since he’s willing to make fewer territorial concessions in the West Bank than the current government and opposes a partition of Jerusalem.

Later Friday, Rice met in Jordan with King Abdullah II. As part of her itinerary, she is also visiting the West Bank town of Jenin, once a stronghold of Palestinian militants. Several months ago, Abbas’ forces deployed in Jenin and it has become a showcase of his law and order campaign.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah.

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