- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Top Palestinian negotiators complained Tuesday that continuing Israeli settlement construction on contested land was undermining chances of a peace deal this year, even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration still hoped to nail down at least the outlines of a peace deal before Mr. Bush leaves office in January.

With embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Washington for talks with President Bush on Wednesday, Maen Areikat, deputy general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiating department, said Israel’s continued settlement building since the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis conference in November had dimmed prospects of a breakthrough.

“Unfortunately, the situation on the ground has not changed significantly” since Annapolis, Mr. Areikat said on a Washington visit. “On the contrary, Israel is trying to change the facts on the ground to its advantage.”

Mr. Areikat said the bulk of the meeting Monday between Mr. Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas focused on Palestinian complaints over Israeli settlement activity, not on the core issues of land, borders, refugees and resources at the heart of the peace talks.

Miss Rice, addressing the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Tuesday, acknowledged that “the present opportunity is not perfect by any means” to press for a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

“But it is better than any other in several years and we need to seize it,” she said. “We still believe that we have a chance to reach an agreement on the basic contours of a peaceful Palestinian state.”

Private analysts say the administration’s self-imposed year-end deadline to reach a deal looks increasingly unlikely.

Further complicating the talks has been Mr. Olmert’s personal political woes, stemming from a corruption investigation that has led to calls from political rivals and members of his own ruling coalition that he step down.

Mr. Olmert has brushed aside the resignation calls and was slated to address the AIPAC gathering Tuesday night and discuss the status of the peace talks with Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday.

Mr. Areikat said Mr. Olmert’s domestic political troubles are an internal affair for Israel and his team was prepared to negotiate with whomever the Israelis selected.

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