U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday cautioned Israel about continued building in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. "Settlement activity, both actions and announcements, is damaging "to peace prospects, Rice told a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
She denied the Israeli-Palestinian peace process she sponsored was a failure, saying it should lay the ground for an eventual deal.
Rice said Palestinians should "soon" have their own state, though she has made it clear she does not expect a breakthrough before Barack Obama moves into the White House.
"They are dignified people and I am certain the day is coming soon when they have a state that will be in accordance with that great national dignity," she said.
Rice’s Mideast trip comes with Washington acknowledging that Israel and the Palestinians are unlikely to achieve a peace agreement before U.S. president-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.
On the first day of her Middle East visit on Thursday, Rice met outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss the peace process she helped launch in Annapolis, Maryland, one year ago.
Rice and the White House have made it clear they have little hope of a breakthrough before U.S. President George W. Bush’s mandate ends on January 20, despite the Annapolis agreement to seek a deal by the end of this year.
"We knew that if that agreement was not reached by the end of the year, there would be those that would say that the Annapolis process, the negotiations, had failed. In fact, it is quite the opposite," Rice told the news conference with Palestinian President Abbas.
"While we may not yet be at the finish line, I am quite certain that if Palestinians and Israelis stay on the Annapolis course, they are going to cross that finish line and can do so relatively soon," she added.
The White House acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that U.S. President George W. Bush’s goal of a statehood deal before leaving office in January was "unlikely" to be achieved.
Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made public commitments to Rice to continue the negotiations, which the secretary of state insisted had narrowed the gaps between the two sides.
Barack Obama, who won the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday, takes office on Jan. 20 but it is unclear how soon he will engage in Middle East peacemaking.
"We hope that the new administration will begin immediately tackling the Middle East issue so we would not waste time," Abbas told reporters.
U.S. officials attributed the failure to reach an agreement this year to Israel’s decision to hold an early parliamentary election, scheduled for Feb. 10.
Bush had hoped an end-of-term deal would bolster a legacy burdened by the unpopular war in Iraq. U.S. officials said Rice has no plan to float her own proposals to strive for a last-minute deal.
Rice was to travel briefly to Jordan on Friday for a working dinner with King Abdullah II. She also plans to visit Jenin in the northern West Bank to highlight the successful deployment of Palestinian security forces in the former flashpoint city.
She will end her trip in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh at a meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
(Agencies via Alarabiya.net)