WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has told Israeli and Palestinian leaders they will need to show progress in their secret talks soon, or risk a potentially fatal erosion in public support for a process now in its sixth month without any obvious successes.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice passed that message during meetings with both sides a little more than a week ago, according to Arab, US, and other Western diplomats. Rice was reacting mainly to the increasingly pessimistic Palestinian assessments of the talks, but she warned that confidence was fragile among Israelis, too.
"We talked some about the perception that they're just having endless talks," Rice told reporters later, without mentioning the warnings she had raised in private. "They simply don't see it that way."
Rice did not present the Israeli and Palestinian leaders any specific US proposal to show momentum, but several ideas are in play.
President Bush will visit Israel and Arab states this week, adding to public pressure to demonstrate that US-sponsored peace talks are bearing fruit.
Diplomats said, however, that Rice's warning was not tied to Bush's visit and that she left it to both sides to determine what to do next.
One possibility is for negotiators to issue an interim statement describing progress on their talks. Any such update would ideally include a few specifics about the future borders of a Palestinian state, one of the difficult questions that Rice and others have said the two sides are discussing.
A Palestinian adviser said Rice raised the possibility of a statement outlining progress during her latest visit to Israel and the West Bank, but was shot down by both sides.
The negotiations should continue but then timing is wrong for any announcement, both sides said, diplomats said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private session Rice held with the top negotiators on both sides, among other meetings.
Rice said the closed-door meetings were progressing in good faith and that she understood the negotiators' desire to keep their dealings out of the press.
"I've had extensive discussions with them and it has helped to build my confidence in what they're doing," Rice said as she left Israel last Monday. "I would be the last to say that, you know, an agreement is going to pop forward tomorrow," she added. "They've got a lot of hard issues."
One of those issues is the question of, as Rice put it, what land will end up in Palestine and what will remain in Israeli hands when negotiators agree on the borders of a future independent Palestinian state.
Although difficult, the border question is considered perhaps the most soluble of the major questions that divide Israel and the Palestinians.
Rice mentioned borders prominently, suggesting she thinks it is the best chance for progress in the near term.
Twice during her most recent trip, Rice urged that the sides draw a final map soon, in part because it would help settle other disputes.
In unusually blunt language, Rice acknowledged that the map won't give Palestinians every inch they claim while Israel cannot expect to keep all the Jewish housing it has built on disputed ground.
"There are realities for both sides, which is why they need to draw a map and get it done," Rice said as she left the region last Monday.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting nearly daily in the first substantive peace discussions in more than seven years.
The United States is not a party to the talks but is acting as proctor.
It is the most direct US intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during Bush's presidency.