Rice: No deal yet, but Palestinians will get state

It won't happen on President Bush's watch, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says his promise of an independent Palestinian state will be met.

President-elect Obama shares the goal of Palestinian statehood and has pledged to tackle Mideast peacemaking earlier and more enthusiastically than Bush did.

While not achieving their ultimate goal before Bush leaves office in January, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have laid the groundwork for success as long as Obama and the two parties follow through on incremental progress made, Rice said Friday.

“The distance to that peace has been narrowed, although the peace has not yet been achieved,” Rice said halfway through what could be her final mission to Israel and the West Bank.

“It is not surprising that a conflict that has now gone on for decades may take some more to resolve, but the right elements are there,” she said.

It was nearly a year ago, in late November 2007, that Bush convened an international peace summit in Annapolis, Md., and announced that he would help shepherd an agreement to end the longstanding conflict before the end of this year.

Rice has made eight trips to the region since, but has not been directly involved in negotiations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting regularly, despite frustration over the pace and scope of the talks on the Palestinian side and internal political turmoil on the Israeli side.

“We knew … that if that agreement was not reached by the end of the year, that there would be those who would say that the Annapolis process, the negotiations, had failed,” Rice said during a news conference with the U.S.-backed Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas.

“In fact, it is quite the opposite,” she insisted.

“The Annapolis process has laid the foundations for the eventual establishment of the state of Palestine. The Annapolis process … is vital, it is vibrant, and it is continuing, and I am quite certain that, carried to its conclusion, it will produce a state of Palestine.”

A possible change of government in Israel and the transition to a new U.S. administration could stall the talks for months.

In Israel's Feb. 10 election, hardline leader Benjamin Netanyahu is competing against moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads the Israeli negotiating team.

Rice and other Mideast mediators will meet in Egypt on Sunday to get a progress report – though not substantive because the discussions have been secret – from Livni and Palestinian negotiators. They are expected to pledge their continued support for the process.

The international quartet of Mideast mediators – the U.S., the U.N., the EU and Russia – is also expected to reaffirm its support for the Annapolis framework.

The talks thus far have produced few tangible results, but Rice insisted there has been progress, and she held out hope that with the commitment of the Obama administration, the Israelis and Palestinians, a peace agreement is not too far off.