Matthew Lee
The Associated Press
November 6, 2008 - 8:00pm

The Bush administration has conceded that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is no longer possible by the end of its term and is preparing to hand the fragile, unfinished U.S.-backed peace effort to President-elect Obama.

Obama may not want it, at least as designed by the Republican Bush administration, seen as slow to embrace the role of honest Mideast broker. Many of Obama's foreign policy advisers were players in the Clinton administration's extensive Mideast peace efforts and are unenthusiastic about President Bush's hands-off approach.

After months of publicly insisting that an agreement still could be sealed by the year-end deadline set by the two sides and Bush last November in Annapolis, Md., U.S. officials said Thursday for the first time it would have to wait.

"We do not think it is likely it will happen before the end of the year," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged as much at the start of a Mideast trip.

Bush has employed Rice as a goad and monitor, but not a central negotiator. The administration said that to be viable, any deal should come from the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Rice's eighth visit to the region since the Annapolis peace conference had been intended as a push for urgent progress on the modest gains from a year of U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and one part of the fractured Palestinian leadership.

Instead, amid political uncertainty in Israel, where a corruption scandal is forcing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from office, the administration is focused on keeping the two sides from backsliding. Rice wants them to produce a placeholding affirmation of their commitment to the peace process.

She said it remained an "open question" as to what form the affirmation would take, but said it was critical for the incoming Obama administration, as well as a new Israeli government to be elected in February, to inherit a solid framework to restart negotiations quickly.

"It should be carried forward," she said, stressing that progress, if not a full-on deal, had been achieved since Annapolis, including the fact that the two sides were talking again after years of Palestinian rebellion and international efforts to support the Palestinian people.

She added that she hoped the Israelis and Palestinians would "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 timetables."

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

Negotiators from the two sides were to brief top officials from the international diplomatic "quartet" on the Middle East - the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia - in Egypt on Sunday on their progress to date.

But it was not clear whether that meeting, which Rice also will attend, would produce a document or verbal statement that fits her bill, as Israel appears reluctant to put anything in writing that could memorialize specific results of the talks thus far.

"We hope that the current American administration will give the upcoming administration a positive opinion to continue this process, and bring it to a success," said Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

Rice's comments at times took the tone of a concession speech and came at a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's chief negotiator in the talks. At it, the two women spoke of the importance of keeping the talks alive.

"It is important that we preserve the process within the structure that we have created," said Livni, a centrist who will be running against hardline former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Feb. 10 voting.

Netanyahu currently is favored in most polls and has deep reservations about the peace process.

Rice sees Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday before holding talks in Ramallah in the West Bank with Palestinian officials. She then makes a quick side trip to Aqaba, Jordan, to see Jordan's King Abdullah II before returning to the West Bank on Saturday and then heading to Egypt for the quartet meeting.

Speaking to reporters aboard her plane en route to the Middle East, Rice lamented that Israel's political situation "is a constraint on the ability of any government to conclude" a deal.

At the same time, she said it was the Bush administration's hope that Annapolis "has laid groundwork which should make possible the establishment of a Palestinian state when the political circumstances permit."

"I think that whatever happens by the end of the year, you've got a firm foundation for quickly moving this forward to conclusion," she said.


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