Rice admits Middle East deal this year is unlikely

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The Bush administration conceded yesterday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by a year-end deadline is no longer possible.

"We do not think it is likely it will happen," Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said in Washington, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged as much at the beginning of a tour of the Middle East.

Ms Perino said US officials began to doubt the deadline months ago, as a corruption scandal and political uncertainties occupied Israel's attention. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is being forced from office by the scandal, and elections are set for February.

Ms Rice said upon her arrival in the Middle East yesterday that it was important to maintain momentum and support for the negotiations so that new governments in Israel and the United States have "a firm foundation" to continue to the talks next year.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have long said they believe the year-end deadline is unrealistic.

With Ms Rice's time in office rapidly running out, she is hoping to shore up the fragile Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and leave a viable process for the incoming administration of Barack Obama.

The talks that began in Annapolis have produced few tangible results and are expected to be placed on hold for at least several months during the US transition from Bush to Obama.