Nation/World

White House says it can’t finish Mideast peace deal

Rice preparing to hand off process to Obama camp

JERUSALEM – The Bush administration has conceded that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is no longer possible by the end of its term and is preparing to hand the fragile, unfinished U.S.-backed peace effort to President-elect Obama.

Obama may not want it, at least as designed by the Republican Bush administration, seen as slow to embrace the role of honest Mideast broker. Many of Obama’s foreign policy advisers were players in the Clinton administration’s extensive Mideast peace efforts and are unenthusiastic about President Bush’s hands-off approach.

After months of publicly insisting that an agreement still could be sealed by the year-end deadline set by the two sides and Bush last November in Annapolis, Md., U.S. officials said Thursday for the first time it would have to wait.

“We do not think it is likely it will happen before the end of the year,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged as much at the start of a Middle East trip.

Bush has employed Rice as a goad and monitor, but not a central negotiator. The administration said that to be viable, any deal should come from the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Rice’s eighth visit to the region since the Annapolis peace conference had been intended as a push for urgent progress on the modest gains from a year of U.S.-sponsored talks between Israel and one part of the fractured Palestinian leadership.

Instead, amid political uncertainty in Israel, where a corruption scandal is forcing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from office, the administration is focused on keeping the two sides from backsliding.

Rice wants them to produce a place-holding affirmation of their commitment to the peace process.

She said it remained an “open question” as to what form the affirmation would take, but said it was critical for the incoming Obama administration, as well as a new Israeli government to be elected in February, to inherit a solid framework to restart negotiations quickly.

“It should be carried forward,” she said, stressing that progress, if not a full-on deal, had been achieved since Annapolis, including the fact that the two sides were talking again after years of Palestinian rebellion and international efforts to support the Palestinian people.



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