JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned to Israel yesterday for the third time in six weeks, seeking to nudge the Israeli and Palestinian sides closer together in advance of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference.
But Rice, after a day of meetings with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, acknowledged that her two-day visit is unlikely to produce agreement on a hoped-for joint pre-conference statement of mutual goals.
"They're still working. And like with anything of this kind, you know, they're going through some knotty discussions," Rice said. "I think those knotty discussions are going to continue for a while, but I will go out and see if there is anything that I can do to help move this along."
The conference is loosely scheduled to take place before Dec. 21 in Annapolis, but no formal date has been set. Rice said the time wasn't right to issue formal invitations.
Rice was scheduled to meet today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Negotiating teams, led by former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, remain at odds over the statement of goals. Palestinian officials consistently have pressed for a joint statement that addresses specific issues such as a right of return for Palestinian refugees and the future borders of a Palestinian state.
Rice, in her recent visits, generally has sided with the Israeli preference for a more vague document with no set timelines.
"It is not true that Israel is avoiding in advance discussion of the sensitive issues," Livni said yesterday. "We must see if it is possible to reach understanding on these topics, to see if we can proceed. ... We have already experienced failure in the past, and we don't want to go there again."
Livni said Israeli security concerns would have to be addressed in any substantial negotiations. But she praised the Abbas government as a serious negotiating partner, in contrast with the Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
"The bad news is: Terrorism rules in Gaza," Livni said. "The good news is: There is a moderate Palestinian leadership that accepts the idea of peace, the vision of two states living in peace and security."
Meanwhile, Olmert said yesterday that vigorous peace negotiations could go far toward establishing an independent Palestinian state before President Bush leaves office.
"If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments" in the little more than a year Bush has left, Olmert told a gathering of scholars, leaders and former peace negotiators.
The Israeli leader did not say a final deal is possible in that time frame, although he affirmed that the practical goal of talks is an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Israel has been reluctant to set even a loose deadline for talks, but Olmert appeared to come closer to the Palestinian demand of a date certain for a separate state.
"There is no intention of dragging the negotiations on endlessly. There is no reason to suffer the same foot-dragging which previously characterized our discussions," Olmert said.
Olmert's government may have reason to want to secure the best deal it can now under U.S. auspices, for fear that a Democrat less friendly to Israel's security interests might be the next U.S. president.
In Gaza yesterday, Israeli airstrikes killed four Palestinians and badly wounded two others. Rockets fired by Palestinian militants knocked out the electricity to 300 homes in the Israeli border town of Sederot.
Ashraf Khalil writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.