Close to End of Term, Rice Embarks on Mideast Peacemaking Trip

U.S. secretary of state to meet Israeli, PA peace negotiators in final attempt to 'preserve the process.'

Fighting irrelevance and a ticking clock, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarks Wednesday on yet another Middle East peacemaking trip, hoping to secure fragile Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and leave a viable process for the incoming Obama administration.

With just 77 days left in office, Rice will be making her eighth trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since the parties set a year-end goal of reaching a peace deal at last November's U.S.-sponsored peace conference. She will also visit Egypt and Jordan to shore up Arab support for the talks.

Meeting the target date for an agreement is now highly unlikely, especially with political uncertainty in Israel and the lame duck Bush administration's waning influence, but Rice intends to press the two sides to carry on and, if possible, come up with an outline of how they can move ahead after Jan. 20.

"We're going to try to put this process in the best possible place going forward so that whomever comes next can formulate their policies, take a look at the process, and possibly use it, take it further," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

"Our focus is going to be on moving the process forward as far as it can be moved forward in a responsible way, while preserving the process," he said. "That has great value."

The Israeli-Palestinian situation is one of several Middle East trouble spots that the Bush administration will bequeath to President-elect Barack Obama. The war in Iraq, Iran's nuclear program and troubles with Syria are among the most troublesome.

The administration is expected to reply on Thursday to Iraq's proposals for amendments in a security deal that will govern the presence of U.S. troops there, something Obama has pledged to reduce quickly. International efforts to get Iran to halt suspect atomic activities are at a standstill and Syria has reacted furiously to a U.S. airstrike in its territory.

Obama has yet to offer specifics on how will approach the peace process, but his foreign policy advisers include many former Clinton administration officials who were actively involved in the 2000 Camp David talks and may be eager to re-enter the fray.

Still, Rice has made clear she will not give up on the push for an Israeli-Palestinian deal while she is on the job.

"Until that moment when I leave office, I will leave no stone unturned to see if we can finally resolve this conflict," she told an audience at a Palestinian investment forum last month in Washington.

Those comments were her last substantive remarks on the peace process and in them, she made the same twin challenges to Israel and the Palestinians she has made 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 parties need to redouble their efforts," Rice said.

The talks that began in the U.S. last year 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 term technically expires in January.

Rice will see Abbas and outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert along with the chief negotiators from both sides before heading 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.

Yet underscoring the fragility of the situation, Hamas militants in Gaza pounded southern Israel with a barrage of rockets as Rice prepared to leave Washington, just hours after Israeli forces killed six gunmen in new violence that threatens a five-month-old truce.