TEL AVIV - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged Monday it will be difficult to reach a year-end target for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but said the two sides and the United States remain committed to that goal.
Flying into the region on her seventh trip since the goal was set nine months ago at a U.S.-hosted peace conference, Rice said she would press the parties to secure even small, incremental steps and not dwell on producing documents that demonstrate partial progress.
There has been speculation the Bush administration wants the Israelis and Palestinians to sign onto an interim statement before the U.N. General Assembly meets in New York in late September, but Rice suggested that was unlikely and the two sides were not at that point.
'I think it's extremely important just to keep making forward progress, rather than trying prematurely to come to some set of conclusions,' she told reporters aboard her plane.
'We continue to have the same goal, which is to reach agreement by the end of the year,' Rice said. '(There is) a lot of work ahead to do that and obviously it's a complicated time, but it's always complicated out here.'
Rice will hold two days of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as bring them together for three-way talks intended to help them bridge remaining gaps.
But since the November peace conference in Annapolis, the negotiations have produced little tangible progress. And despite a deliberate lowering of expectations, prospects for Rice's latest mission appear dim, particularly with Israel in the midst of political uncertainty as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert prepares to step down next month.
In a gesture meant to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and improve the negotiating climate, Israel on Monday freed nearly 200 jailed Palestinians - including a militant mastermind from the 1970s - just hours before Rice's arrival.
'This is something that matters a lot to the Palestinians, it matters a lot to the Palestinian people and it is obviously a sign of good will,' she said.
The prisoners returned to cheers and applause as they entered Palestinian-controlled territory before heading to a massive rally attended by thousands of people at the headquarters of Abbas.
Abbas, whose moderate Fatah movement controls only the West Bank, has urged Israel to free some of the 9,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. Fatah is engaged in an intense power struggle with the militant Islamist Hamas, which seized Gaza last year.
Rice said more such confidence building measures needed to be taken.
'On both sides ... the Israelis and the Palestinians have work to do,' she said.
In a related matter, Rice said the region should be concerned about the potential for major new military sales to Syria by Russia, which has recently incurred the wrath of many in the West for its invasion of Georgia.
She noted long-standing concerns about the extent of Syria-Russia relations, but said they raised even more questions at a time when Israel and Syria are engaged in indirect peace talks moderated by Turkey.
'The region will want to be concerned about a buildup of arms in Syria at a time when in fact the Syrians and the Israelis are trying to talk peace,' she said. 'I think this is probably not a propitious time.'