RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday denied the Israeli-Palestinian peace process sponsored by U.S. President George W. Bush was a failure, saying it should lay the ground for an eventual deal.
Launched nearly a year ago at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, the negotiations were hampered from the start by violence and bitter disputes over Jewish settlement building and the future of Jerusalem. “We knew … that if that agreement was not reached by the end of the year, there would be those that would say that the Annapolis process, the negotiations, had failed. In fact, it is quite the opposite,” Rice told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “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 added.
The White House acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that Bush’s goal of a deal on Palestinian statehood before he leaves office in January was “unlikely” to be achieved.
Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made public commitments to Rice to continue the negotiations, which the secretary of state insisted had narrowed the gaps between the two sides.
Barack Obama, who won the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday, akes office on Jan. 20 but it is unclear how soon he will engage in Middle East peacemaking.
“We hope that the new administration will begin immediately tackling the Middle East issue so we would not waste time,” Abbas told reporters. He also said he complained to Rice about continued Israeli settlement building, “incursions” into Palestinian areas and what he called a “dangerous escalation” in attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest.
U.S. officials attributed the failure to reach an agreement this year to Israel’s decision to hold an early parliamentary election, scheduled for Feb. 10.
With Abbas at her side, Rice cautioned Israel about continued building activity in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, calling it damaging to peace prospects.
Bush had hoped an end-of-term deal would bolster a legacy burdened by the unpopular war in Iraq.
U.S. officials said Rice, whose trip includes a brief visit to Jordan on Friday and stops in the West Bank city of Jenin and the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, has no plan to float her own proposals to strive for a last-minute deal. They also played down the possibility of the two sides agreeing on a document summarising where the negotiations stood, saying there was a need to preserve the talks’ secrecy. Rice on Thursday said it was an “open question” how the Bush administration would hand over the matter to Obama’s team.