- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

TEL AVIV

The Bush administration conceded Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by a year-end deadline is no longer possible.

“We do not think it is likely it will happen before the end of the year,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged as much at the outset of a Middle East trip meant to secure the modest gains from a year of U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and one part of the fractured Palestinian leadership.

Mrs. Perino said U.S. advisers began to doubt the deadline months ago, as a corruption scandal and related political uncertainties occupied Israel’s attention.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being forced from office by the scandal, and the country is set to hold new elections in February. Miss Rice noted the situation “is a constraint on the ability of any government to conclude” a deal.

“I’ve learned never to predict in this business,” she said, “but it is clear we’re in a different situation now because Israel is going to elections.”

On her way to the Middle East for her eighth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since the parties set the deadline for reaching an agreement at last November’s summit at Annapolis, Miss Rice said political uncertainty in Israel is the main obstacle.

Miss Rice also said upon arriving here that it is important to maintain momentum and support for the negotiations so that new governments in both Israel and the United States have “a firm foundation” to continue the talks next year.

“It is our expectation that the Annapolis process has laid groundwork which should make possible the establishment of a Palestinian state when the political circumstances permit,” Miss Rice added. “I think that whatever happens by the end of the year, you’ve got a firm foundation for quickly moving this forward to conclusion.”

The two sides for months have been backing away from the timeline pushed in Annapolis.

Although Miss Rice refused to rule out the chance of an agreement by year’s end, her remarks reflect the first time that a Bush administration official has publicly not held out hope that the deadline could be met.

“We’ll see where they are at the end of the year,” said Miss Rice, vowing to “work on this with the parties until the day that we leave.”

With her time in office rapidly waning, Miss Rice is hoping to shore up the fragile Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and leave a viable process for the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

She will also visit Egypt and Jordan to shore up Arab support for the talks. At some point before Mr. Obama moves into the White House on Jan. 20, Miss Rice said she would like to see the sides memorialize the progress they have made but not stretch to conclude a partial deal.

“It will be important to wrap up all of that work one way or another,” she said.

Miss Rice, when questioned about whether the U.S. was looking for a document of some kind to lay down on paper what progress the sides have made and whether they have reaffirmed their commitment to the Annapolis agreement, replied: “As I understand it, they are going to affirm that the Annapolis process and the framework it establishes is indeed the basis on which they believe they can come to a resolution of their conflict, regardless of anyone’s time tables.”