JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to the Middle East on Monday in another effort to bridge gaps holding up an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that Washington says could still be achieved this year.
Few analysts believe Rice, who plans talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and negotiators from both sides, can secure a major breakthrough that would set Palestinians on a fast track to statehood.
But many are reluctant to rule out that the two sides could agree to some formal, limited accord that would enable Washington to meet its target of a deal before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.
A senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday that Rice, despite recent setbacks in talks, “is going to try to push the parties along”.
“It’s clear that we’re very involved and she wants to see where the parties are, and also wants to know where she can be helpful. If she can be helpful in bridging any gaps, she’ll do that,” the official said.
Efforts to seal a deal have been hampered by violence and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
A State Department spokesman said on Friday Washington still believed an agreement could be reached by the end of the year, but “there’s no attempt by the U.S. government to push the parties beyond where they believe they can go at this point”.
In what Israel has called a bid to bolster Abbas, who has been weakened by last year’s takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas Islamists, Israeli authorities plan to release 199 Palestinian prisoners, many of them members of his Fatah faction, on Monday.
The U.S. official said the talks should not be affected by Olmert’s impending resignation in a corruption scandal.
Olmert has said he will step down after his Kadima party’s leadership election on September 17, but he could stay on for months as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.
“This process is bigger than any individual. Olmert is prime minister and we’re working with him. But peace in the Middle East is something that everyone has an interest in,” the U.S. official said.
With Israeli politics in flux ahead of the Kadima vote and predictions of a general election as early as November, at least one key Israeli player in the peace process has been cautioning against any rush towards an agreement.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator and a possible successor to Olmert, said last week the international community must not pressure the sides to reach an accord by year’s end. She said papering over differences would only stir discontent and might reignite a Palestinian uprising.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington)
Editing by Robert Hart