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Rice: Mideast peace falls to Bush successor

The top U.S. diplomat also accused Iran of continuing a covert nuclear weapons program, although a U.S. intelligence assessment has said Tehran quit its active warhead program years ago. Rice defended the Bush administration's carrot-and-stick approach to Iran and indirectly criticized Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for his willingness to talk to the clerical regime.

Rice said there is still a chance to frame a deal between Israel and the Palestinians this year, although she said the goal is admittedly ambitious.

“The goal itself, though, will endure beyond the current U.S. leadership,” Rice told a jammed ballroom at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I believe that the administration's approach to this problem will and must endure.”

A more immediate concern involves the Israeli leadership, not the American. There was no mention of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's legal troubles, which threaten to bring down his government or force his own party to replace him. Olmert was in Washington as Rice spoke.

Olmert is the public face of Israeli peacemaking, and his exit will complicate already fragile negotiations. Olmert holds regular meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas including one before he left Jerusalem on Monday.

Rice drew repeated applause for tough language on Iran, the rising Mideast power that Israeli leaders consider their greatest enemy. Iran's hard-line president regularly says Israel must be wiped off the map. On Tuesday he told a European audience that Israel is “doomed to go.”

Rice scoffed at Iran's claim that its nuclear program is intended only to produce electricity. Why then would Iran keep inspectors away from some sites, reject a generous offer of civilian nuclear help from Russia or maintain part of its program under military control, Rice asked.