RAMALLAH // The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice today denied the Israeli-Palestinian peace process she sponsored was a failure, saying it should lay the ground for an eventual deal. Launched nearly a year ago at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, the negotiations were hampered from the start by violence, and bitter disputes over Jewish settlement building and the future of Jerusalem. "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," Ms Rice told a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah with the Palestinian president Mahmoud 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 yesterday that George W Bush's goal of a statehood deal before leaving office in January was "unlikely" to be achieved. Mr Abbas and the 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 US 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," said Mr Abbas. US officials attributed the failure to reach an agreement this year to Israel's decision to hold an early parliamentary election, scheduled for Feb 10.
With Mr Abbas at her side, Ms Rice cautioned Israel about continued building in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. "Settlement activity, both actions and announcements, is damaging" to peace prospects, she said. Bush had hoped an end-of-term deal would bolster a legacy burdened by the unpopular war in Iraq. US officials said Rice, whose trip includes stops in the West Bank city of Jenin, Jordan and Egypt, has no plan to float her own proposals to strive for a last-minute deal.