Rice Sees Mid-East Deal This Year.

The US still believes a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians is possible by the year's end, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said.

Meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, she described continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank as "problematic".

US President George W Bush is hoping for a peace deal by the time he leaves office in January.

Mr Abbas said failure to reach a peace deal was not an option.

The current peace process, launched at the big Middle East conference that Mr Bush hosted at Annapolis in November, has been dogged by a perceived lack of progress.

Ms Rice is due to have talks on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whom she saw for dinner on Saturday.

'Little progress'

Before travelling to Ramallah on Sunday morning, Ms Rice met Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Her visit is laying the ground for President Bush's trip to the region later this month.

The US administration is hoping it can bring about a deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis but correspondents say that with just nine months to go before Mr Bush's term ends, time is running out.

Ms Rice is raising pressure on Israel to ease freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank.

On her plane from London on Saturday, she said she would be asking about an Israeli promise to lift 61 roadblocks.

She added that "everybody [was] looking to the Palestinians to take responsibility for security".

Several hundred members of the Palestinian security forces took up positions in the West Bank town of Jenin on Saturday as part of a security plan backed by the Americans and approved by Israel.

Hundreds of Palestinian security forces have already been deployed under the plan in the town of Nablus.

But Mr Abbas's government has complained that continued Israeli raids against militants in the West Bank undermine the efforts of the Palestinian forces.

Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas are set to hold a bilateral meeting in Jerusalem on Monday after Ms Rice's departure, according to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Rice: "These are the first really serious discussions in seven years"
But the BBC's Kim Ghattas says that after months of talks, there is little evidence of progress as the economic situation of Palestinians, especially in Gaza, deteriorates.

At a Middle East Quartet meeting of the EU, UN, Russia and US on Friday, Ms Rice urged international donors and Arab countries in particular, to live up to their pledges to the Palestinians.

The Quartet also called on Israelis to freeze all settlement activities and urged the Palestinians to curb militant attacks, saying both sides should refrain from any actions that undermined peace talks.

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