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Rice Arrives in Israel in Bid to Prod Middle East Peace Effort

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza has arrived in Israel to try to help Israelis and Palestinians come closer to an agreement on Palestinian statehood. VOA's Luis Ramirez has more from Jerusalem.

This is the latest in a series of trips the top U.S. diplomat has made to the region in hopes of helping the two sides bridge remaining gaps. The United States has called for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement by January, before U.S. President George Bush's term expires.

Speaking to reporters aboard her airplane, Secretary Rice indicated it is unlikely there will be a comprehensive agreement anytime soon. She said what is important is to keep making forward progress, rather than trying prematurely to come up with a set of conclusions.

The United States has been calling for a peace agreement by year's end and Rice on Monday said Washington is sticking to that goal, although she said there is 'a lot of work ahead'.

Negotiations launched in the U.S. city of Annapolis last November have not made visible progress. Both sides remain stuck on key issues, including that of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and of the Palestinians' right of return.

Palestinian officials have praised U.S. efforts to push for an early agreement, but Israel has warned against too much pressure, saying a premature agreement could lead to violence.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told VOA Israel wants progress in the negotiations.

"We are committed to the Annapolis process. We are doing the work that needs to be done to try to get an agreement before the end of the Bush administration," he said.

Rice's trip includes meetings with top officials on both sides. She travels Tuesday to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hours before Rice's arrival, Israel released nearly 200 Palestinian prisoners in what officials said is a gesture of goodwill meant to bolster the peace negotiations.