U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday vowed to continue pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace framework this year despite less than ideal circumstances. Rice spoke prior to a Washington meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose hold on power has been shaken by a corruption scandal. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Rice, who has had five Middle East negotiating missions this year and is expected to make another soon, is vowing to press ahead with her quest for at least the outline of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord during the remainder of President Bush's term.

But in a speech Tuesday to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - Rice suggested that the goal might slip to the next U.S. administration.

At last November's Annapolis conference, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged "every effort" to conclude a peace agreement by the end of 2008.

In her AIPAC speech, Rice said a chance remains to reach an agreement on the "basic contours" of a two-state Middle East peace accord but said even that is an ambitious undertaking.

"I know that this is ambitious," she said. "But if we can pursue this goal by the end of the year, it will be an historic breakthrough for people who believe in peace. The goal itself though will endure beyond the current U.S. leadership. I believe that the administration's approach to this problem will and must endure."

Rice spoke ahead of a private afternoon meeting with Mr. Olmert, who is also in Washington to address AIPAC and will meet President Bush Wednesday.

She made no specific mention of the problems facing the Israeli Prime Minister but said current conditions for peacemaking "are not perfect by any means."

Nonetheless, she said the present opportunity is better than any other in several years and needs to be seized. Rice is expected to go to the region in the middle of this month to prod the sides forward.

Rice vowed continued steadfast U.S. support for Israel to bolster its confidence for a peace process that will require concessions, and in the face of threats from Iran, which she said continues to "inch closer to a nuclear weapon" despite claims of peaceful intent:

"Why, as the IAEA's most recent report shows, is Iran continuing to enrich uranium in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions? Why, as the IAEA also suggests, are parts of Iran's nuclear program under the control of the Iranian military? And why is Iran continuing to deny international experts full access to its nuclear facilities. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's just hard to imagine that there are innocent answers to these questions," said Rice.

Rice reiterated a U.S. offer of open-ended dialogue with Iran if it stops its uranium enrichment drive, but said concerned nations including U.S. European allies need to rise to the challenge and tighten sanctions on Tehran if it refuses.

Alluding to anti-Israel rhetoric by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she said a regime that denies the Holocaust and seeks to destroy a U.N. member state "should not be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold."