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Mideast peace: one more push

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Rice's approach

Secretary Rice has made numerous trips to the region – specifically to sit down with Israeli and Palestinian leaders since last November. That's when Bush launched the so-called Annapolis process, with the goal of reaching a peace agreement by January 2009.

But unlike past US administrations, Rice and other American officials working on the six-decade-old conflict have refrained from presenting American proposals for addressing the big outstanding issues. They've preferred instead to act as a facilitator of talks between the two sides.

State Department officials indicate that this preference is unlikely to change in the Bush administration's waning days. But they also suggest that Rice is interested in leaving behind a sustainable peace process that the next American administration can pick up without starting over.

That would be a change from what occurred at the end of the Clinton administration, when the failure of President Clinton's personal drive to conclude a peace accord ended in bitter recriminations and a long hiatus in negotiations.

But even laying down markers for future talks could be hard, given the unknowns about future leadership of the principal parties, in particular the Israelis.

"It's very difficult at best to lock in something for future negotiations," says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East initiative at the New America Foundation in Washington. "Until everything is agreed, and especially when you have at least one side facing an imminent test of public approval, neither side sees a benefit from pursuing a work in progress."

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