Israeli-Palestinian Peace Urged by Rice

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday urged a renewed focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts with time running down on the Bush administration's goal of reaching an agreement this year.

Rice said that nascent indirect Turkish-brokered talks between Israel and Syria and signs of a possible Israeli-Lebanese warming should not be allowed to distract from the Israeli-Palestinian push, which she suggested had greater chances for success in the short term.

En route to a conference in Berlin on Palestinian security, legal and penal reform, she allowed that there was an "intersection" between the three tracks. But she warned against compromising the Israeli-Palestinian effort with too much attention to the other two.

"We'll review where we are on all these tracks," Rice said. She was scheduled to meet Tuesday on the sidelines of the conference with the other members of the international diplomatic "quartet" on the Middle East, the U.N., European Union and Russia.

The quartet was formed specifically to deal with Israeli-Palestinian matters, but Rice said "those issues are now intersecting" with the Israel-Syria track and a new push to deal with the disputed Chebaa Farms area held by Israel but claimed by Lebanon.

"I am sure we will have a chance to discuss the intersection, but I would hope that we will not lose track, or not lose focus, on the Palestinian-Israeli peace, which is of course still the one that is most advanced," she said.

The Bush administration has been pushing the Israelis and Palestinians to work out an agreement on the future parameters of a Palestinian state since it hosted an international peace conference at Annapolis, Md., in November.

Little progress has yet been made despite claims by both parties that they want to meet a January 2009 deadline. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been rocked by internal political turmoil and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been trying to consolidate his power, which has been hit by the takeover of the Gaza Strip by the radical Hamas movement.

Rice said a period of calm announced last week by Hamas and Israel was a positive development but that it should be complemented by an effort to ensure that Abbas' Palestinian Authority is seen as the legitimate government for Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Part of that effort involves helping the Palestinian Authority create the infrastructure and institutions needed to emerge as a viable state. Tuesday's Berlin conference will focus on efforts to assist the police, judiciary and jailers in bringing their forces up to standard.

"You really can't have an effective security effort if you don't have police stations, if you don't have prisons, if you don't have court systems that are free and fair," Rice said.