Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Monday evening, and told her that Israel is committed to the safety of its citizens while at the same time acting to improve the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Barak told Rice that the US must continue to impose sanctions on Iran, as Israel would not accept a nuclear Tehran and would remove no options from the table.
Earlier Rice acknowledged that a broad peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is a long shot before President George W. Bush leaves office, but she rejected the idea of a half-measure now.
"I think it's extremely important just to keep making forward progress, rather than trying prematurely to come to some set of conclusions," Rice said, dismissing speculation she wants both sides to sign onto a statement documenting their progress nine months into a secretive and publicly fruitless series of talks.
Although Israel released about 200 Palestinian prisoners in a sign of good will shortly before Rice arrived, the peace talks — launched with great fanfare at the Annapolis, Md., peace conference in November — have bogged down, even after deliberate lowering of expectations.
The two sides remain publicly pledged to an ambitious end-of-year target for a settlement of the hardest issues in the six-decade conflict, and Rice said that remains the goal. She allowed that leaves "a lot of work ahead," and she urged the two sides to at least agree on small, incremental steps.
In contrast to her past upbeat insistence that public silence masked private progress, Rice had a matter-of-fact assessment ahead of two days of meetings with negotiators and leaders on both sides.
"Obviously it's a complicated time, but it's always complicated out here," she said in a news conference aboard her plane. She gave no prognosis for US-backed talks that have failed to yield obvious successes or much public confidence. Israeli newspapers barely cover Rice's frequent visits now. Israeli officials have been backing away from that timetable in recent weeks, and Palestinian officials have all but declared the process fruitless.
Among the complications are political uncertainty in Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will step down next month. He is the target of a series of highly damaging corruption probes, and his exit sets up a leadership contest.
Olmert had made peace talks with the Palestinians a priority, and his friendly relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lent credibility and a sense of momentum.
'Expectations are pretty low'
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the chief negotiator in the talks, is a top candidate to replace Olmert. She sent mixed signals about the near-term future of an accord with the Palestinians even as she defended the process as vital to Israel's interests.
"We decided that time is against us, that time is against the moderates and that stagnation is not an option for the Israeli government," she said Thursday, in explaining why the government renewed talks after a seven-year lapse.
Talks are limited to Abbas' moderate Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank, and Livni implied that no agreement could actually be implemented until Abbas re-establishes political control in the Gaza Strip, which the militant Hamas group violently took over last year.
Livni said it is dangerous to rush into an agreement without hashing out key details.
Despite some limited improvements, including the removal of a new checkpoint on Monday south of Ramallah, Israel is still curtailing access to Israel and within the West Bank for Palestinians whose economic conditions are deteriorating. Israel continues to announce new settlement projects on disputed land, angering the Palestinians.
After arriving in Jerusalem, Rice met Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia and had dinner in Tel Aviv with Barak. On Tuesday, she sees Olmert, holds a second round of talks with Livni and then hosts a three-way meeting of the negotiation teams before heading to Ramallah to meet with Abbas.
Rice did offer praise for Israel's release of 198 Palestinian prisoners — including a militant mastermind from the 1970s — saying "this is something that matters a lot to the Palestinians" and "it is obviously a sign of good will" from Israel.
Israel said the prisoner release was a gesture meant to bolster Abbas and his Western-leaning administration.
The fate of roughly 9,000 prisoners in Israeli jails is emotional for Palestinians and Abbas, who is struggling to show his people the fruits of the peace talks, has repeatedly urged Israel to carry out a large-scale release to boost his government.
US officials insist the slow-going negotiations are making at least some progress, but they refuse to say how or if the two sides are bridging gaps on the key issues: the borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem the question of Palestinian refugees.
One senior State Department official said the Bush administration does not want to jeopardize any small gains made thus far by throwing a "hail Mary" pass on the chance of securing a quick deal. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, also conceded that public opinion about the negotiations "is enormously skeptical" and that "expectations are pretty low."