Rice lands in Israel ahead of Sunday's Quartet meeting

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed in Israel Thursday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders ahead of Sunday's meeting in Egypt of international sponsors of the current Middle East peace negotiations, reported dpa.

She is scheduled to meet Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv in the afternoon and head to the nearby coastal town of Herzliya Pituah for talks and dinner with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni at the residence of US ambassador James Cunningham in the evening, an embassy spokesman said.

On Friday morning she is to hold more talks with Israeli officials in Jerusalem, before travelling to the West Bank city of Ramallah where she is to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice is also scheduled to fly over to Jordan on Friday night to dine with King Abdullah II, and return to Jerusalem. From there, she is to head to the Egyptian Red Sea Resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Saturday afternoon as head of a key meeting of the "Quartet" of Middle East peace sponsors on Sunday.

The Quartet - the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia - sponsors the ongoing peace negotiations which Olmert and Abbas launched one year ago at a high-profile summit in Annapolis, Maryland.

One year on, both Palestinian and Israeli officials have said it is unlikely the parties will meet their goal of reaching a peace deal before an end-of-year deadline.

A lingering disagreement over Jerusalem and Olmert's resignation on September 21 are the two key reasons for the impasse.

Olmert has been pushing for a deal that would postpone a settlement on the highly-sensitive issue of Jerusalem, but formulate a solution for key bottlenecks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the future border between Israel and the Palestinian state and the Palestinian refugee problem.

Abbas, however, wants a comprehensive agreement that deals with all of the conflict's core issues, including Jerusalem.

Olmert resigned earlier this autumn to fight corruption charges. He has vowed to continue negotiations as the head of a transitional cabinet until a new government is formed after early elections are held on February 10.

But all main contenders in that election say he now lacks the legitimacy to do so. These include, Livni, the new leader of Olmert's ruling centrist Kadima party, former premier Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline opposition Likud party, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of the coalition, left-to-centre Labour Party.

Speaking in Washington ahead of Rice's arrival, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack conceded that the Israeli political calendar "greatly complicates" concluding an agreement before US President George W Bush leaves office on January 20.

"So our focus is going to be on moving the process forward as far as it can be moved forward," he said.

He denied reports that Rice planned to place a bridging proposal on the table during the Quartet meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh.

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