Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns to the Mideast this week amid dwindling hopes for securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by a year-end target.
She left Washington Sunday night on her seventh trip to the region since President George W. Bush, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert set the goal at a U.S.-hosted peace conference last November. She is schedule to arrive Monday in Israel.
But negotiations have produced little tangible progress. With a deliberate lowering of expectations and political uncertainty in Israel as Olmert prepares to step down next month, prospects for Rice's latest mission appeared dim.
The State Department said Friday in announcing the trip that Rice's discussions would include "ongoing efforts to create positive and lasting peace in the region and progress toward the shared goal of a peace agreement in 2008."
The scope of an agreement has been pared down to the outline of a final deal that would not go into place until well after Bush leaves office in January. But Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and continued Israeli settlement activity have hurt efforts to get a deal.
Both sides and the Bush administration remain committed to the end of year deadline and have taken incremental steps aimed at building confidence.
Israel planned to release nearly 200 Palestinian prisoners on Monday, hours before Rice's arrival, in a gesture meant to bolster Abbas and improve the negotiating climate.
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 group Hamas, which seized Gaza last year, AP reported.