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Rice: Mideast peace by year-end no longer possible

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TEL AVIV, Israel — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday all but conceded that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by a year-end deadline is no longer possible.

But she also said upon arriving here that it is important to maintain momentum and support for the negotiations so that new governments in both Israel and the United States have "a firm foundation" to continue to the talks next year.

En route to the Middle East for her eighth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since the parties set the deadline for reaching an agreement at last November's summit at Annapolis, Md., Rice said political uncertainty in Israel is the main complication to the goal.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being forced from office by a corruption scandal, and the country is set to hold new elections in February. Rice noted that the situation "is a constraint on the ability of any government to conclude" a deal.

"I've learned never to predict in this business," she said, "but it is clear we're in a different situation now because Israel is going to elections."

"It is our expectation that the Annapolis process has laid groundwork which should make possible the establishment of a Palestinian state when the political circumstances permit," Rice added. "I think that whatever happens by the end of the year, you've got a firm foundation for quickly moving this forward to conclusion."

The two sides for months have been backing away from the timeline pushed in Annapolis.

Although Rice refused to absolutely rule out the chance of an agreement by year's end, her remarks reflect the first time that a Bush administration official has publicly not held out hope that the deadline could be met.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have long said they believe the year-end deadline is unrealistic.

"We'll see where they are at the end of the year," said Rice, vowing to "work on this with the parties until the day that we leave."

With her time in office rapidly waning, Rice is hoping to shore up the fragile Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and leave a viable process for the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

She will also visit Egypt and Jordan to shore up Arab support for the talks. At some point before Obama moves into the White House on Jan. 20, Rice said she would like to see the sides memorialize the progress they have made but not stretch to conclude a partial deal.

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

Rice has been making the same twin challenges to Israel and the Palestinians on more than 20 largely fruitless journeys to the region during her tenure as secretary of state: Israel should loosen its grip on the West Bank and the Palestinians should tighten theirs on militants.

The talks that began in Annapolis, Md., have produced few tangible results and are expected to be placed on hold for at least several months during the U.S. transition from Bush to Obama. In addition, Israel will hold elections on Feb. 10 and there are questions about the tenure of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose opponents claim his term expires in January.

Rice will see Abbas and Olmert, along with the chief negotiators from both sides, on Thursday and Friday before visiting Jenin, the West Bank town where Palestinians retook security control early this year on Saturday.

She then heads to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt where top officials from the international diplomatic "quartet" on the Middle East will be briefed on the status of the talks on Sunday.

Any results officially reported to the quartet the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations from Palestinian-Israeli talks so far could become a basis for future negotiations, even after the Israeli election.

The quartet envoys will get from Israeli and Palestinian negotiators a progress report that could prevent backpedaling during the Israeli and U.S. leadership changes.

The idea is to "listen and to record and to know where we are heading," EU envoy Marc Otte said after meeting with the chief Palestinian negotiator in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Israel and the Palestinians have agreed on key principles, such as a land swap, but gaps remain wide on core issues, including the partition of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Jerusalem contributed to this report.