WASHINGTON, (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to Washington this week to preserve modest momentum in Mideast peace talks begun under U.S. sponsorship last year.
The Bush administration is trying to secure a few concessions from Israel and the Palestinians by the end of this year, leaving the details of any real peace deal to the next president.
The talks have yielded no measurable gains in public. Rice has taken to mediating three-way sessions and was expected to press Wednesday for a more formal accounting of the progress she has said the two sides are making behind closed doors.
“Our goal as the United States is to work as hard as we can to encourage the parties to resolve the differences between them,” Rice said Tuesday. “They are working very, very hard. They are also working very seriously.”
Rice met Tuesday with the senior Palestinian negotiator. She planned a one-on-one session Wednesday with the top Israeli negotiator, followed by a joint session scheduled to last more than two hours.
In recent weeks, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have scaled back their ambitious goal of a signed deal before Bush leaves office in January, saying the best that could be hoped for was the outline of an agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday backed away from a target date — announced at a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference in November — for reaching a deal with the Palestinians by year’s end.
Olmert met last week with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who pledged that if elected he would work harder from the start than President Bush did to get a peace deal. Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain also would continue talks with both sides.
“Our focus is to work with both sides to get as far as we can in achieving a settlement on all final status issues by the end of the year,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday.
So-called final status issues include the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, competing claims to the holy city of Jerusalem, the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees and Israeli security concerns.
Rice said she had been assured that Israel remains committed to working for a deal on the hardest problems this year, but she made no big promises during a news conference Tuesday.
“I expect to continue to help the parties find points of convergence, to help them to continue to try to work toward this,” Rice said. “I’m assured that they’re all committed to trying to make it happen, but nobody should underestimate the difficulty of doing that.”
Olmert’s comment that the sides will need more time to bridge differences over Jerusalem was the clearest indication yet that the Israeli leadership sees that target as unattainable.
“There is no practical chance of reaching a comprehensive understanding on Jerusalem” in 2008, Olmert told a closed-door meeting of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, according to an official present at the gathering.
The status of disputed Jerusalem has long been the toughest problem in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Olmert has been meeting directly with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a public display of good will that the Bush administration wants to preserve, in part to hand a new U.S. administration a working process. Lower-level Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meet regularly to address Jerusalem, the final borders of an independent Palestinian state and the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left homes in what is now Israel.
Palestinian leaders have sounded more pessimistic than the Israelis for months, with Abbas complaining of no progress and other officials accusing Israel of undermining its public pledge to peace by expanding Jewish settlements on what would become Palestinian land.