Israelis and Palestinians could start to explore fundamental peace issues this summer, US officials said, in a sign they believe some progress is possible despite myriad obstacles.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to visit the Middle East roughly once a month, a senior State Department official said, discussing the Bush administration's desire to promote peace in its final two years.
In interviews this week, senior US officials acknowledged the challenge of getting two politically weak leaders - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - to engage seriously on peace.
They also stressed their desire to see Arab states like Saudi Arabia begin to engage with Israel, possibly providing political cover for Palestinians to make compromises should any genuine peace negotiation begin.
Olmert and Abbas plan to meet on Sunday in the first of a series of fortnightly talks that may build confidence and help the two sides, despite their domestic constraints, eventually start to deal with the most intractable issues of borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Olmert's office on Friday said said such "final status" issues would not be on the agenda on Sunday.
"We are not there yet. It could be possible to get to that point within the next few months, by summer," a senior State Department official told Reuters. "I think it has to be an effort by Israelis and Palestinians but also by Arabs too."
The Bush administration has been faulted by Arab diplomats and outside analysts for what critics regard as six years of relative neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Skepticism about US commitment
Egypt's ambassador to the United States Nabil Fahmy said progress was necessary soon if Rice wants to allay Arab skepticism about US intentions and commitment.
"As she goes back again and again, there will have to be more meat on the table, not only by way of what the Israelis and the Palestinians do but in what she presents," he told reporters this month.
"It will not suffice to argue that process is an achievement in itself. By early summer, there will have to be
... A deep indication that there is a commitment to dealing with final status issues if not some progress and clarity on the Israeli and Palestinian position on (them)."
There is a widespread belief among foreign policy analysts that the US effort comes at an inauspicious moment.
Olmert was politically weakened by Israel's 34-day war with Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrillas last summer. A
government-appointed commission into his handling of the conflict is to release a report later this month.
Abbas's Fatah party lost parliamentary elections to Hamas last year and is now in a coalition government with the Islamist party, which the United States and Israel regard as a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with.
"Our main concern at the moment is supporting Abu Mazen (Abbas), making sure that Hamas is not in a position to take over -- militarily, economically, politically," said one official.
The official said Washington hopes the roughly $60 million it plans to spend to bolster Abbas' presidential guard and for other security expenses will be multiplied by Arab funds.
He said strengthening the security forces under Abbas and reviving the Palestinian economy "are things that ... lay the basis for a successful negotiation whenever it happens."
One senior official said the administration was realistic about the difficulty of creating a Palestinian state before Bush leaves office.
"We are going to be at this deliberately and methodically. We won't give it up," he said. "We expect to make a contribution in this area. Notice the word expect, not hope."
"It's getting harder and harder," said another official. "I mean, the clock is ticking."