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Rice begins Mideast visit

TEL AVIV (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a Middle East visit on Monday, saying she still aimed to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal this year but playing down the chances of any quick, partial agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a joint news conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari (not in the picture) in the heavy fortified Green Zone in Baghdad August 21, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Abbas/Pool

Rice landed in Israel for a 25-hour visit that will include talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and their lead peace negotiators.

Speaking to reporters as she flew to Tel Aviv, Rice suggested there was little chance of getting some kind of agreement on paper in time for the U.N. General Assembly, which begins in September.

“It’s extremely important just to keep making forward progress rather than trying prematurely to come to some set of conclusions,” she said.

“We continue to have the same goal which is to reach agreement by the end of the year. (There is) a lot of work ahead to do that and obviously it’s a complicated time, but it’s always complicated out here,” Rice said.

Few analysts believe Rice can secure a major breakthrough that would set Palestinians on a fast track to statehood. Progress towards a peace deal has been hampered by violence and Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

In remarks on Friday, Israel’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, cautioned against any outside pressure to paper over differences or try to achieve a deal that would fall short of the “comprehensive agreement that we want to reach”.

Livni is widely regarded as the frontrunner in a Kadima party leadership race to replace Olmert, who is embroiled in a corruption scandal and has said he would resign after his successor is chosen.

Olmert could, however, stay on for months as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, although many in Israel doubt that as a lame duck leader he would be able to put a peace deal into motion.

Hours before Rice began her visit, Israel freed 198 Palestinian prisoners to a hero’s welcome in the West Bank, saying it hoped the release would bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S.-sponsored peace efforts.

Rice described the release as a “very good step”.

“This is something that matters a lot to the Palestinians ... and it obviously is a sign of goodwill,” she said.