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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday she planned to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority early next month to help both sides narrow their differences in Palestinian statehood talks.

The administration headed by U.S. President George W. Bush is trying to get both Israel and the Palestinians to agree on a peace deal before Bush leaves office in January 2009, but talks that were launched in Annapolis last November have so far gotten off to a slow start.

Rice told U.S. lawmakers that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were trying to continue their discussions "without much public glare" and the United States was doing everything it could to help.

"I will probably return to the region at the beginning of March, senator, to see if we can help them," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad met with Rice in Washington this week and complained the Israelis were not doing enough on the ground to help his government, which is seeking to get checkpoints removed from the West Bank.

Israel argues that the checkpoints are needed to protect itself against Palestinian suicide bombers.

Rice said she was focusing hard to try and improve "circumstances" for the Palestinians, adding that she had met two U.S. generals earlier on Wednesday who were working to ensure that Israel is following through on its obligations as agreed upon in the 2003 U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Rice conceded Washington's peace efforts had been "challenged" by the complicated situation on the ground in the Palestinian Authority, where Abbas' Fatah movement controls the West Bank and the militant group Hamas has been in charge of the Gaza Strip since June.

Moreover, she said the "irresponsible, deadly" behavior of Hamas, which has been firing rockets into Israel, had made it very difficult.

"The good news is that the parties, who seem really quite devoted to solving their conflict this time, are continuing their negotiations and we will be there to try and help them," said Rice.

"Because as the president said, the time is now to try to get a Palestinian state and finally end that conflict."