WASHINGTON If doctors pledge to first do no harm, U.S. presidents seeking peace in the Middle East could do the same. The Bush administration is trying to keep Israel and the Palestinians talking through the waning months of President Bush's term, because not talking is worse.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heard out the complaints of both sides during a long joint meeting in her office Wednesday, amid political turmoil in Israel that complicates the already slim hope for a peace deal this year. Like past sessions, this one yielded no breakthroughs but passed the low-bar test of preserving momentum.
President Bill Clinton's eleventh-hour summitry failed, but the Bush administration isn't ruling out another U.S.-backed initiative before its time is up. Rice called the joint meeting "very fruitful" and said she is still pursuing a wide-ranging deal between Israel and the Palestinians this year.
"We are going to try to push the limits of this process. We're going to try to push it as far as it will go, as far as the parties will go," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
"We're not going to try to push the limits of a process to the point where it breaks and you lose hope of a solution, because it is too important a moment in the Middle East to lose this opportunity," he said.
The Clinton example was clearly on everyone's mind. Clinton invited the two sides to Camp David for crisis talks intended to solve the six-decade conflict in one gulp.
The collapse of that effort in 2000 launched nearly seven years of violence and increasing political estrangement that Bush, late in the game, has tried to bridge. His chief envoy, Rice, has adopted a step-by-step approach that encourages the two sides to do most of the hard work themselves.
Rice says she will act as a prod and mediator, but there is no indication now that she intends to lean hard on either side to make concessions they aren't ready to make.
"The secretary is not going to be in a position where she irretrievably breaks a process that has hope of bringing peace to the region," McCormack said.
In recent weeks, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have scaled back their ambitious goal of a signed deal before Bush leaves office in January, saying the best that could be hoped for was the outline of an agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday backed away from a target date announced at a U.S.-hosted Mideast peace conference in November for reaching a deal with the Palestinians by year's end on the borders of an eventual independent Palestinian state and other tough questions.
If that goal fails, the Bush administration wants at least to hand the next president something to work with. At the least, that would be an established expectation that the two sides would continue talking, which administration officials say is more than Clinton left them.
"Camp David failure is not an option," Palestinian adviser Saeb Erekat told reporters after the three-way meeting with Rice. He also rejected the notion of a partial agreement if time is too short for a bigger one.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni offered no comment after the talks, and U.S. officials said they would not go into details. Rice has acted as go-between at several similar three-way sessions this year, but this was the first in Washington.
Past U.S. presidents have arranged eleventh-hour summits or mini-summits in the waning months of their terms. That is at least a possibility now, perhaps accompanying the annual mass meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in September. Rice is expected to visit the Mideast before then.