Israeli president doubts peace deal by year-end

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Israeli President Shimon Peres cast strong doubt on Tuesday over whether Israel and the Palestinians could reach a peace deal by the end of the year as hoped.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Peres said there was progress in the talks, which have been stalled by political uncertainty in Israel, but a deal may only be possible over the next year.

“We had hoped to conclude it by the end of the year, apparently we shall not conclude it by the end of the year,” said Peres when asked whether the U.S.-mediated Palestinian statehood talks could result in an agreement by year-end.

“I do believe that there remains real progress and there is a very fair chance of concluding it during the next year.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation over the weekend and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is now struggling to pull together a new Israeli government.

When the peace process was relaunched in November last year in Annapolis, Maryland, all sides said they hoped to have a peace agreement before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also in New York, was quoted earlier this month as saying he doubted a full peace deal with Israel could be reached by the end of the year.

Aside from Israeli political uncertainty, prospects for an accord have been dimmed by violence, Israeli settlement expansion and the effective division of the Palestinian territories between the West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza.

The so-called quartet of Middle East peace brokers — Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations — are set to discuss the peace process on the sidelines of the United Nations on Friday.

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