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Rice Heads to Middle East to Push for Peace Deal

America's top diplomat is heading back to the Middle East for a new peace mission, but there are few expectations for a major breakthrough, as we hear from Robert Berger at the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is still pushing for a peace agreement by the end of the year. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to resign next month over a corruption scandal, but under Israel's complicated system of government, Mr. Olmert could remain in office for many months as caretaker prime minister, even after his Kadima party chooses a new leader in September.

Mr. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, says Israel will do all it can to reach a peace deal before U.S. President George Bush leaves office in January.

"We're focused on what needs to be done, and we're very committed to trying to reach a historic agreement by the end of this year, and we're working to see that that can happen," he said.

As a goodwill gesture to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel plans to free 199 Palestinian prisoners on Monday to coincide with Rice's arrival. In a change of policy, this will include the release of two prisoners involved in deadly attacks on Israelis.

While Palestinian officials have welcomed the prisoner release as an important step, they are pessimistic about the chances of a broader peace deal.

"Palestinians are extremely skeptical. I think, deep down, the Palestinians feel that this isn't anything that is substantive or serious," said Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian legislator.

Gaps remain wide on the core issues of the conflict, including Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, final borders and the status of Jerusalem.