Rice Heads to Israel Next Week Amid Gaza Violence

State Dept. Spokesman: U.S. condemns deadly Qassam attack on Sderot, Olmert, Abbas committed to peace.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Israel and the Palestinian territories next week in a bid to push along U.S.-brokered peace talks complicated by mounting violence in Gaza.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey announced the trip on Wednesday and said Rice would leave on March 3 for meetings with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. She will then visit Brussels for a NATO foreign ministers meeting before going home on March 7.

"This is part of the follow-up to the Annapolis process. I am sure she will get a good sense there from both parties on the state of play of their discussions and negotiations," Casey told reporters.

Rice was also due to meet Olmert on Thursday in Tokyo where both of them are currently visiting.

The United States officially launched peace talks last November in Annapolis, Maryland, and U.S. President George W. Bush has said he wants both sides to agree to a peace treaty by the time he leaves office in January, 2009.

Rice conceded in testimony to the U.S. Congress this month that the talks had been "challenged" by the complicated situation on the ground in the Palestinian territories, where Abbas' Fatah movement controls the West Bank and the Islamist group Hamas has ruled Gaza since last June.

The surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence along the border of Gaza has stoked fears both sides could be close to a full-scale conflict amid public pressure on Olmert to order tougher military action to deal with rocket attacks from Gaza.

"There always are going to be things that will happen that will try and distract or sideline parts of these discussions but the important thing is that in President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, we have two leaders who are committed to moving forward," said Casey.

He said they had made a commitment to conclude a deal by the end of the year and both Abbas and Olmert continued to abide by that "ambitious timetable."

But experts say the situation on the ground could torpedo U.S. efforts to get a deal.