Israeli and Palestinian negotiators should decide once and for all where to draw the line between Israeli and Palestinian territory, ending the argument over Jewish housing expansion on disputed ground, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. Rice also warned on Thursday that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank does not equal a "fait accompli" that the houses or towns would remain in Israeli hands under a final settlement of the six-decade conflict.
The settlement issue has seriously clouded the progress of peace talks that were inaugurated with high hopes by US President George W Bush more than six months ago. There has been little visible progress since, and Palestinians suspect Israel is increasing the pace of expansion in a deliberate land grab while closed-door negotiations continue.
"Ultimately the best answer is to determine what's going to be in Israel and what's going to be in Palestine," Rice said before meetings with negotiators and leaders on both sides in London and the Mideast.
Determining final borders is "the best thing we can possibly do," Rice said, suggesting she has heard Palestinian, Arab and other complaints that there is little momentum and less clarity in peace talks that are supposed to frame an independent Palestinian state before Bush leaves office.
The United States is acting as proctor for the talks but has not offered its own solutions in public.
Rice's remarks also reflect the conclusion accepted privately on all sides but rarely uttered that some disputed Israeli-occupied areas would remain a part of a redrawn Israel. The Bush administration has as much as promised Israel it could keep some sensitive land, but Rice was effectively warning the close U.S. ally not to carry the policy too far or assume it has no consequences.
"I do not, and the US government does not, accept that anything done prior to agreement can ... present a fait accompli or determine the final outcome of this," Rice said.
She did not single out any particular Israeli project as improper, but repeated the US diplomatic criticism of housing expansion in general. "It's not helpful," she said. The West Bank abuts Israel and has been under varying degrees of Israeli military control for decades.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he does not want Israel to remain an occupying power, but Israel is reluctant to cede too much control lest militants take advantage and hurt or kill Israelis. The West Bank would form the bulk of a future independent Palestine under a plan endorsed by the United States and much of the world.
Participants say the current talks are addressing difficult questions that have doomed previous peace efforts. Borders are among the hardest of those questions. The issue is particularly fraught in Jerusalem, holy to both Muslims and Jews.
"It's far too early to start any sense of despair about the end of the year," Rice said.
At the same time, she acknowledged that Palestinians are losing patience. The United States and moderates among both Israeli and Palestinians fear an explosion of violence and a political windfall for Hamas and other militant anti-Israel groups if negotiation yields nothing tangible.
"I do believe the window for the two-state solution is not open forever," Rice told reporters traveling with her. "I think you could argue it's gotten narrower and narrower over time." The top US diplomat said Israel bears primary
responsibility for showing Palestinians that peaceful negotiation pays off in improvements to their daily lives. Heading to
a gathering of international donors to the perpetually broke Palestinians, Rice said the world can help, and can start by honoring existing financial commitments.
"Israel has probably the lead responsibility in helping to improve the lives of the Palestinian people but it's a shared responsibility," she said.
US officials said the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank has collected less than half of what it was promised by donors for this year and won't be able to pay its bills unless laggard donors, primarily from Arab states, pay up. Donors are meeting Friday in London for a strategy session intended to concentrate aid where it will do the most good.
Rice was also meeting with a group of would-be Mideast peacemakers that includes the United Nations and holding a joint meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni is leading negotiations for Israel.
Rice then plans a weekend of shuttle diplomacy in Jerusalem and the West Bank ahead of Bush's scheduled trip to Israel later this month. All sides are keen to show some progress in the talks by the time Bush arrives.
Before she left Washington, Rice told an American Jewish audience that Israel must make "difficult decisions" to provide the Palestinians with the dignity of statehood. Young Palestinians are losing hope for an agreement with Israel, she said.
"Increasingly, the Palestinians who talk about a two-state solution are my age," the 53-year-old Rice said in a somber speech to The American Jewish Committee on Tuesday.