Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is still possible by the end of President Bush’s term in office, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted on Tuesday.
“We still have a number of months before us to work toward the Annapolis goal and we’re going to do precisely that,” Rice said at a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Rice dismissed speculation she wants both sides to sign a statement documenting their progress over the past nine months, the Associated Press reported.
Israel and the Palestinians agreed to try to reach final peace deal at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, last year.
But nine months later, most Israeli and Palestinian experts are doubtful that an agreement can be reached by the end of Bush’s term, as Bush has insisted. If the two sides do make some kind of agreement in principle, it is likely to be shelved until the P.A. can regain control of the Gaza Strip from Hamas – a move that analysts say is not likely to happen any time soon.
Israel also is in the midst of political upheaval. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who met with Rice early on Tuesday, has promised to resign soon, following Kadima party primaries, which Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is hoping to win.
In Ramallah, Abbas said that he wanted a “comprehensive,” not a partial, agreement. He also repeated the Palestinian position that Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank is the “main obstacle” in the peace process.
Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a future Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.
Rice said that while “settlement activity is not conducive to creating an environment for negotiations” nevertheless, the negotiations continued.
The left-wing Israeli group Peace Now charged in a new report this week that there were 2,600 Israeli homes under construction in the West Bank – 80 percent more than last year.
According to the report, the number of bids for new construction in eastern Jerusalem increased from 46 in 2007 to 1,761 this year.
Israel and the Palestinians committed themselves to the first phase of the road map peace plan at the peace conference in Annapolis last year. For Israel that meant a freeze on all settlement construction and for the Palestinians dealing with security issues.
Livni, who earlier met with Rice, downplayed the report of construction in settlements. The peace process “should not be affected by any kind of settlement activities,” Livni said.
Livni said both sides must avoid finding excuses not to negotiate.
“The role of leaders is to try and find a way to live in peace in the future, and not to let any kind of ‘noise’ that relates to the situation on the ground to enter the negotiating room,” she said.
“At the end of the day, the Israeli government policy is not to expand settlements, it is not to build new settlements, not to confiscate land from Palestinians,” Livni said.
According to the Associated Press, U.S. officials insist the secretive negotiations are making some progress, but they refuse to say how or if the two sides are bridging gaps on the key issues: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem the question of Palestinian refugees.
Meanwhile, Israel closed the passages into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday in response to rocket fire on southern Israeli communities on Monday. Two rockets were launched, the army said, but there were no injuries or damage.
More than 40 rockets have been launched at Israel since Israel and Hamas agreed to a truce in June.
Hamas, meanwhile, is continuing to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip at a rapid pace, unnamed senior security officials were quoted as saying in the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.