U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met senior Israeli and Palestinian officials Tuesday in preparation for a three-way meeting Wednesday with the two sides' chief negotiators. Officials say Rice hopes to take the peace process as far as she can in the time remaining for the Bush administration. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Mideast parties committed themselves, at last November's Annapolis conference, to make every effort to conclude a peace agreement by end of 2008. But as Rice prepared for Wednesday's trilateral talks, her aides were downplaying expectations.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the Secretary's aim, with less than six months left in office, is to push the talks as hard as she can, and as far as they can go, but if necessary hand off a viable peace process to the next U.S. administration.

"She is going to continue to push for a settlement," said Sean McCormack. "She is going to continue to push for progress on roadmap obligations. That is not to say that she or this administration are going to be irresponsible in terms of the process. You don't want to push the process to the point where it breaks down irretrievably and you have foreclosed the possibility of a solution between the two sides."

McCormack's remark about the danger of a breakdown was an apparent reference to U.S. peace efforts at the close of the Clinton administration.

President Clinton pressed then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a peace accord in the final months of his term, only see the effort fail and relations between the parties lapse into the violence of the second Palestinian Intifada.

Barak, defense minister in the current Israeli government, met with Rice Tuesday morning in a lengthy meeting that covered both the peace process and regional security issues including Iranian threats to Israel.

In a talk with reporters, Barak said Israel is trying to supplement the negotiations with efforts, in coordination with the United States, to improve the security capability of the Palestinian Authority.

"We are trying first of all to secure our population against terror attacks, and at the same time to give the Palestinians both the opportunity and to help them to the extent we can to build institutions and capacity that will end up with a law-enforcing chain starting with a strong police, with intelligence, with a prison system, with court system which work, at least on a kind of Middle Eastern standard, if not the Maryland standard," said Ehud Barak.

Rice met later with Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia, in advance of a planned three-way meeting Wednesday afternoon with Qureia and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Qureia told reporters he still hoped for an overall agreement by year's end but that there could be no deal and no Palestinian state without resolution of Jerusalem's status.

The Palestinian envoy said Rice plans to make what will be her eighth trip of the year to the region in mid-August to join in  another three-way negotiating session.

In his comments here, Israeli Defense Minister Barak called Iran's nuclear program a major threat to global security and world order.

He said it is time for an accelerated sanctions regime to halt Iran's uranium enrichment drive but said ultimately no option should be taken off the table.

Barak met Defense Secretary Robert Gates Monday and a Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. government is prepared to explore additional defense capabilities for Israel.

A defense official said Gates and Barak had a serious discussion about the United States providing Israel with an advanced X-Band early-warning radar to help it detect incoming ballistic missiles.

He said Israel has also asked the United States help fund its so-called Iron Dome defense system against short-range rockets and mortars.