As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert works to limit the political fallout from the Winograd Report's criticism of his leadership, a top State
Department official said on Monday that the political reality in Israel is hindering US efforts at producing progress between the Jewish state and Palestinians.
"You have political situations on each side that make it harder for the US leadership to move forward," said David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, during an Anti-Defamation League conference in the US capital.
At the same time, the White House and State Department indicated they would continue their increased efforts at diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians.
Tony Snow, a White House spokesman, called Olmert crucial to the peace process. President George W. Bush "works very closely with Prime Minister Olmert, and thinks that he's essential in working toward a two-state solution. The President remains committed to it," said Snow at a press briefing, adding that he wouldn't comment on internal Israeli investigations.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the No. 3 at the State Department, told The Jerusalem Post
the US was determined to press ahead with Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
"There's never going to be an optimal time, but we have to work for peace. That's our obligation as well as our interest, and Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice believes that we should continue our efforts," Burns said, following an appearance at an American Jewish Congress lunch.
He declined to comment on how the political climate in Israel affects Olmert's ability to deliver on any agreements, saying he did not want to appear to be meddling in internal Israeli affairs.
Welch, speaking of the Middle East situation generally, acknowledged that hopes for Rice's new push for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weren't high. "There are low expectations, I won't deny that," he said of Rice's program. "That said, we do sense an
To that end, Rice has planned nearly monthly trips to the region for discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and encouraged more
frequent meetings between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
She has explained the point of these meetings as largely to offer a "diplomatic horizon" - the framework of a future Palestinian state - to show the Palestinians what they have to gain if they choose moderation and compromise.
But former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross criticized that goal Monday, saying the poor standing of Israeli and Palestinian
leaders jeopardized such grand visions.
"A political horizon which deals with the political contours of a final status agreement is beyond what you could produce right now
because of the weakness among the leaderships on both sides," he argued at the ADL conference, where he participated on a panel alongside Welch. "They cannot make existential concessions."
Ross blamed the Bush administration for failing to take diplomatic action earlier and said it had squandered opportunities for progress,
such as after the election of Abbas. "The administration sat on the sideline for far too long," he said. "They walked away from the
Welch had a different take on the administration's lowered diplomatic presence during its first several years.
"We had inherited a negotiation process that had run into the ground," Welch said of the efforts of Ross and his boss, then-president Bill Clinton, throughout the 1990s that failed to resolve the conflict. In addition, Welch pointed to the upheaval created by September 11.
"That lowered our sense that there was a chance to do something, and the administration and the American people were focused on other threats," he said.