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US Secretary of State Heads to Middle East for More Peace Talks

The State Department confirmed Friday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will go to the Middle East next week in another effort to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. U.S. officials deny trying to rush the process. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department

Rice's trip to the region early next week for talks with senior Israel and Palestinian officials will be her eighth such mission this year.

The trip, beginning Sunday, comes amid declining hopes that the parties can reach the goal set at the Annapolis conference last November for a final accord on a two-state settlement of the conflict by the end of this year.

The State Department insists that the secretary has not given up on that goal. But at the same time, Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood says Rice has no intention of trying to force a deal in the remaining time available that might only serve to inflame tensions:

"We still believe that an agreement can be reached by the end of the year," he said. "But there's no attempt on the part of the U.S. government to push the parties beyond where they believe they can go. The important thing here is that both sides have committed to trying to reach an agreement. It's in the best interest of both peoples, it's in the best interests of the United States, and the rest of the international community."

On Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni publicly warned against outside efforts to pressure the sides to come up with an agreement this year, saying violence could erupt if they failed to meet international expectations.

The remarks by Livni, Israel's chief negotiator in the peace talks, were an apparent reference to the failed effort by former President Bill Clinton to nail down a peace agreement at the end of his term, which was followed by the warfare of the second Palestinian "Intifada."

Rice was originally expected to make the planned Middle east trip earlier this month but it was postponed because of the Georgia crisis.

She plans further meetings with the two parties on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next month in New York, though U.S. officials have discouraged press speculation that she hopes by that time to get a partial list of Israeli-Palestinian agreements on paper.

Analysts say chances for an early agreement have been all but doomed by the political weakness of both the governments of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Livni said Thursday in Jerusalem no peace deal could be implemented as long as the radical Hamas movement controls the Gaza strip, and also said resettlement rights of Palestinian refugees would be limited to the envisaged Palestinian state.

That comment drew a rebuke from Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat who advised Livni to, as he put it, "confine the negotiations to the negotiating room."