The Bush administration has told Israeli and Palestinian leaders they will need to show progress in their secret talks soon, or risk a potentially fatal erosion in public support for a process now in its sixth month without any obvious successes.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice passed that message during meetings with both sides a little more than a week ago, Arab, US and other Western diplomats said. Rice was reacting mainly to the increasingly pessimistic Palestinian assessments of the talks, but she warned that confidence was fragile among Israelis, too.
"We talked some about the perception that they're just having endless talks," Rice told reporters later, without mentioning the warnings she had raised in private. "They simply don't see it that way."
Rice did not present the Israeli and Palestinian leaders any specific US proposal to show momentum, but several ideas are in play.
President Bush will visit Israel and Arab states this week, adding to public pressure to demonstrate that US-sponsored peace talks are bearing fruit. Diplomats said, however, that Rice's warning was not tied to Bush's visit and that she left it to both sides to determine what to do next.
One possibility is for negotiators to issue an interim statement describing progress on their talks. Any such update would ideally include a few specifics about the future borders of a Palestinian state, one of the difficult questions that Rice and others have said the two sides are discussing.
A Palestinian adviser said Rice raised the possibility of a statement outlining progress during her latest visit to Israel and the West Bank, but was shot down by both sides. The negotiations should continue but then timing is wrong for any announcement, both sides said, diplomats said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private session Rice held with the top negotiators on both sides, among other meetings.
Rice said the closed-door meetings were progressing in good faith and that she understood the negotiators' desire to keep their dealings out of the press.
"I've had extensive discussions with them and it has helped to build my confidence in what they're doing," Rice said as she left Israel last Monday. "I would be the last to say that, you know, an agreement is going to pop forward tomorrow," she added. "They've got a lot of hard issues."
One of those issues is the question of, as Rice put it, what land will end up in Palestine and what will remain in Israeli hands when negotiators agree on the borders of a future independent Palestinian state.
Although difficult, the border question is considered perhaps the most soluble of the major questions that divide Israel and the Palestinians.
Rice mentioned borders prominently, suggesting she thinks it is the best chance for progress in the near term. Twice during her most recent trip, Rice urged that the sides draw a final map soon, in part because it would help settle other disputes.
'Some progress is still possible'
In unusually blunt language, Rice acknowledged that the map won't give Palestinians every inch they claim while Israel cannot expect to keep all the Jewish housing it has built on disputed ground.
"There are realities for both sides, which is why they need to draw a map and get it done," Rice said as she left the region last Monday.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting nearly daily in the first substantive peace discussions in more than seven years. The United States is not a party to the talks but is serving as proctor. It is the most direct US intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during Bush's presidency.
Bush inaugurated the push with lofty hopes last fall, with a stated goal of outlining a future independent Palestinian state before Bush leaves office in January 2009.
All sides sound far less optimistic now. Palestinians are angry over what they say are provocative Israeli moves to expand Jewish housing in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Israelis are unimpressed with Palestinian efforts to improve security services. The talks are now overshadowed by a political scandal investigation in Israel that threatens to force Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from office.
Both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are perceived as weak leaders, and both must manage large political factions that distrust the peace initiative. For Abbas in particular, the longer the talks stretch without result the worse his political footing becomes at home.
"The conflict-ending agreement is not feasible, not realistic, to expect," in the waning months of Bush's term, said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine.
"However some progress is still possible," unless the entire process is swamped by such outside events as Olmert's political problems or a possible escalation of the confrontation between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Bush and Olmert are expected to address the goal of an outline for a Palestinian state during public addresses while Bush is visiting Israel to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state.
One diplomat suggested that Olmert could use the opportunity to give a glimpse into the talks.
Abbas is to see Bush in Egypt, at the close of the US leader's Mideast tour.
There is no joint meeting planned among the three leaders. That is an indication that there is no great progress to crow about, but also arises from the sensitivity of asking either Olmert to go to an Arab state or Abbas to travel to Israel during the 60th anniversary celebration.
"This did not seem the time for a big high-level, three-way event with the President and the Prime Minister and President Abbas," White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said last week. "It just doesn't feel right as the best way to advance the negotiations."
Palestinians call the creation of Israel in 1948 the "Nakba," or catastrophe, because of the eviction of Arabs from land the United Nations carved for the Jewish state. Bush will address the parliament in Israel on May 15, the date Palestinians mark the event.