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Rice Starts New Middle East Mission With Lowered Expectations

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is heading to the Middle East late Wednesday for more talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on regional peace-making. U.S. officials acknowledge that the goal set at Annapolis last year for a peace agreement by the end of 2008 is out of reach. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice's trip is her first overseas mission in the transition period between U.S. election and the Obama administration's assumption of power in January.

Officials here concede that the Secretary's main priority now in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy is to be able to hand over a viable peace process to her successor, rather than conclude a peace deal herself.

At the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis conference a year ago, Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to do everything they could to reach an agreement settling their decades-long conflict by the end of 2008.

The parties have been engaged in intensive discussions on the critical final status issues of the peace process, but there have been setbacks, most recently the collapse of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government and the setting of new elections in February.

Rice will meet the now-caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni Thursday in Tel Aviv and go to Ramallah in the West Bank Friday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the Israeli political upheaval will not deter Rice from her pursuit of an early peace agreement, but he conceded that achieving that goal will likely fall to her successor:

"Certainly the fact that you have elections in Israel greatly complicates the ability to conclude an agreement,' said McCormack. "So our focus is going to be on moving the process forward as far as it can be moved forward in a responsible way while preserving the process," he said.

McCormack appeared to dismiss published reports in Israel that Rice will present a U.S. document to bridge remaining gaps -- saying it is the parties themselves who must find areas of compromise.

Israeli Foreign Minister Livni, with whom Rice has developed close working relations, will be the centrist Kadima party's prime minister candidate in the February elections.

While in Israel, Rice will also meet the two other main contenders for the job, Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

She also makes a brief visit to Jordan to meet King Abdullah and goes to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for a ministerial-level meeting Sunday of the Middle East Quartet - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

The four-power grouping, formed on 2002 to advance peace efforts, will be formally briefed for the first time on the substance of the talks by Livni and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia.

Spokesman McCormack said Rice will likely make at least one more trip to the region before leaving office in January.