JERUSALEM -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, pressing for progress in peace talks ahead of a visit next week by President Bush, said yesterday that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by the end of the year is an "achievable goal."
Rice's upbeat remarks contrasted with more pessimistic assessments voiced by leaders on both sides, and her talks in Israel were overshadowed by a new corruption investigation against Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Talks were revived in November at a conference hosted by Bush in Annapolis with the goal of reaching an agreement by year's end. But since then, there have been no visible signs of progress.
Negotiations have been marred by continuing violence in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas; and by Israeli construction in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem, activity the Palestinians say undermines prospects for a viable Palestinian state.
Rice met Saturday with Olmert and yesterday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"This is very painstaking work, it is labor-intensive work, but it is necessary work, because President Bush believes very strongly that the time has come for the establishment of a Palestinian state," Rice said at a news conference with Abbas.
Rice said the United States viewed Israeli settlements in the West Bank as "particularly problematic to the atmosphere of trust that is needed."
Pressing for changes to improve Palestinians' daily lives and boost support for Abbas, Rice prodded the Israelis to ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank.
"We are trying to look not just at quantity, but also at quality of improvements," Rice said.
The visit was eclipsed by a new corruption probe against Olmert. Police questioned him Friday about the case, which is said to involve campaign funds raised by an American supporter. A court order barred publication of details of the probe.
Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.