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Middle East: Rice Says Peace Deal Still Possible By Year's End

(epa) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she believes an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is still possible this year.

Speaking after a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials in the latest U.S. attempt to move forward peace talks, Rice said the year-end goal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was still "achievable," praising the "seriousness and depth" of negotiations.

"We continue to believe that it is an achievable goal to have an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis by the end of the year" and the end of President George W. Bush's term in January 2009, she said at a joint press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 4.

After the secretary of state's last trip to the region in late March, Israel said it planned to remove a number of roadblocks in the West Bank.

Rice said she had raised the question, with both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of whether those roadblocks that are to be scrapped would have a significant effect on easing movement and improving the lives of Palestinians.

"We are trying to look not just at quantity, but also at quality of improvements," she said. Rice also said Washington regarded Israeli settlement activity as "particularly problematic to the atmosphere of trust that is needed."

Rice added that "The United States continues to hold the view that settlement activity is contrary to road-map obligations, and continues to raise with the Israelis the importance of creating an atmosphere that is conducive to negotiation of the final status agreement."

But she also said that Palestinians needed to do more to meet Israeli security demands.

Negotiations on issues central to the Middle East conflict were launched in November at an international conference in Annapolis, Maryland. But so far there has been little progress.

However, Rice welcomed the deployment of Abbas's security forces to the northern West Bank city of Jenin hours before her arrival to the region on May 3.

"I congratulate you on the deployment of Palestinian security forces there for the people of Jenin to be able to experience a secure environment and for the people of Jenin to recognize that the authority of you and the Palestinian government of Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad are, indeed, in Jenin and providing them that security," she said.

On May 2, the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators called on Israel to freeze the construction of further settlements in the West Bank.

Meeting in London, representatives of the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union also called on the Palestinian side to fulfill its commitment to fight terrorism and to accelerate steps to rebuild and refocus its security apparatus.

Abbas and Olmert are due to meet on May 5 following Rice's departure.

Her trip came ahead of a visit by President Bush, who will travel to the region this month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding.

compiled from agency reports