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White House sees peace talks’ value

The White House said Monday that although the Middle East peace talks launched a year ago failed to produce an agreement, the process did produce positive results as President Bush met with Israel's caretaker prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in Washington.

The Bush administration has acknowledged that the talks begun in Annapolis last November will not produce the agreement that Mr. Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had committed themselves to reach by the end of this year.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto blamed the lack of progress on uncertainty within the Israeli political system, as the country awaits elections in February. Mr. Olmert was forced by a corruption probe to resign in August, but he will continue to serve until the election.

"Obviously that will delay or throw off the process a bit," said Mr. Fratto, who insisted that the peace process is "much further along the road" than it would have been without the Annapolis meeting.

But the Palestinians also remain, as they were a year ago, riven by competing factions. The Palestinian militant group Hamas still controls the Gaza Strip, and Mr. Abbas' Fatah Party continues to hold the West Bank. The two remain at odds.

Mr. Abbas, in fact, faces a challenge from Hamas in January over the legitimacy of his continued presidency. Egypt is trying to broker an agreement that would allow him to stay in power another year until parliamentary elections take place, in exchange for Fatah's recognition of Hamas' control in Gaza.

In light of all this, experts debate whether starting the Annapolis process was even worth it in the first place.

"It was a flawed strategy, because it tried to push Israelis and Palestinians to compromise on core issues that they weren't ready to compromise on," said Haim Malka, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It overlooked the ability of radical groups to derail talks with violence and the weakened and divided leadership on both sides."

But Martin S. Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton who heads up the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said "The Annapolis process is of value, and will serve the Obama presidency quite well.

"It is enough - after seven years of no negotiations and a lot of people killed on both sides - to put the process back on track and move it forward in a positive direction, and that's what the secretary of state has succeeded in doing," Mr. Indyk said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made similar comments to reporters Sunday evening, while flying home with Mr. Bush from a summit in Peru.

"We found the region for the Israeli-Palestinian issue frankly literally in flames," she said, harkening back to when Mr. Bush took office in 2001. "And you just have a fundamentally different situation now. Out of the Annapolis process, you have a robust negotiating process between the parties for the first time in seven years."

Mr. Indyk said progress has been made in developing the Palestinian Authority's military capabilities and in helping the West Bank advance economically. The Bush administration's mistake, he said, was in allowing the language that raised expectations for a deal by the end of this year.

Though he commended the Annapolis process, he said President-elect Barack Obama may enter office Jan. 20 with a full-fledged crisis on his hands.

Some hold out hope, however, that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, is named secretary of state by Mr. Obama as expected, she could advance the process.

"Her uncommon understanding of the Middle East could truly revive peacemaking," Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for the Atlantic magazine, wrote on his blog Monday, referring to an interview with Mrs. Clinton two years ago.

In that interview, Mrs. Clinton said that during her husband's presidency, "when he had a process going that kept Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, people didn't die."

"A process is better than no process," she said.

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