RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday there is hope for a Mideast peace deal but she offered no reason for optimism beyond the fact that the two sides are speaking.
"God willing, with the goodwill of the parties, and the tireless work of the parties, we have a good chance of succeeding," Rice said after seeing Israeli and Palestinian leaders and summoning top negotiators for a joint status report. It was her seventh peace mission since President Bush set an ambitious year-end goal for a Palestinian state. And like the others, it ended without announcement of any specific agreements.
With Rice looking on, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made clear he's looking to the next U.S. administration to shepherd a deal. The moderate, U.S.-backed leader said he hoped the next occupant of the White House would pick up where Bush has left off and not, as Bush did, wait until the twilight of his presidency to make a push for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"We shouldn't lose another seven years searching for solutions," Abbas said. We hope the new administration will continue what we have began, and what we have reached."
"These efforts haven't been for nothing," Abbas added, referring to nine months of direct talks with Israel. The talks are the first real peace contacts after seven years of violence and bitter words.
"We would have stopped it if it was pointless," Abbas said. "There are benefits that I hope will show in the future."
Peace talks resumed in November at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Md., but have been marred by the same problems that derailed earlier negotiations - Palestinian complaints about Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and Israeli concerns that Palestinians are far from ready to assume responsibility for security.
While they have agreed on what to discuss - borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, security and water - there appears to have been little if any movement on those issues. Rice said she would keep pushing.
"We still have a number of months before us to work toward the Annapolis goal, and we're going to do precisely that," she said.
The U.S. is encouraging a deal between Israel and the Abbas government to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Palestinians claim the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with east Jerusalem as its capital.
But the talks have been complicated by the impending departure of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has said he will step down to battle a corruption investigation, and the Hamas militant group's control of the Gaza Strip.
Israel also says no deal can be reached until Abbas regains control of Gaza from Hamas, which violently seized power there in June 2007. It also says Abbas' moderate government, which rules from the West Bank, is not doing enough against militants operating in areas under his control.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have complained about continued Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas the Palestinians claim for a future independent state. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Mideast War.
Rice repeated the U.S. position that Israel should stop expanding settlements on disputed territory, saying it "is not conducive to creating an environment for negotiations, yet negotiations go on."
Abbas said the settlements "are undoubtedly a main obstacle in the road of the peace process."
Israel has promised to halt all settlement construction. But it has continued to build or plan thousands of homes in areas it hopes to retain under a final peace deal.
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