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Rice Beginning New Round of Middle East Talks


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flies from London to Jerusalem Saturday for a new round of talks aimed at getting an Israel-Palestinian peace accord by year's end. Rice will lay the groundwork for President Bush's visit to the region later this month. VOA's David Gollust reports from London.

The secretary's two-day London visit also had a heavy Middle East focus, with Rice meeting privately with key Israeli and Palestinian officials and convening with financial supporters of the peace process and the Quartet.

The Quartet - made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - reaffirmed international backing for the goal set at last November's Annapolis conference for a peace accord by the end of 2008.

But the grouping expressed deep concern about, among other things, continuing Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza into southern Israel.

Despite the difficulties, Rice said she still thinks the 2008 goal can be achieved, though skepticism about it is understandable.

"It's hard work, and it's labor-intensive, and it's time consuming. But I believe that they do have a chance to get an agreement by the end of the year. And that's what we're going to work for, every day," said Rice.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was less optimistic, citing economic problems in Palestinian areas caused by Israeli roadblocks and a shortfall in the collection of funds pledged last year by international donors, including Gulf oil states, in Paris:

"I said that the process was not proceeding in terms of pace or content in a manner to attain or achieve the goal that was set out at the Annapolis meeting. So therefore, if things continue to proceed along the path they are, or they have been, it is unlikely that objective is going to be met," said Fayyad.

Rice's trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas is her 15th in two years.

The secretary will meet late Saturday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. On Sunday she will have talks in the West Bank town of Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - as well as hold two trilateral meetings with senior officials of both sides.

Rice will be laying the groundwork for President Bush, who will try to advance the peace process in a visit to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from May 13 to the 18.

Earlier this week he acknowledged that achieving peace is an uphill task but said he is still hopeful an agreement can be finished by the end of his presidency in January 2009.

The president will attend observances of Israel's 60th independence anniversary but has no plans at present for a joint peace summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

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