US Secretary of State John Kerry is to head for the Middle East next week to try and advance ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The US envisages a deal between the two sides by the end of April.
In a statement on Saturday, the US State Department said Kerry (pictured l. above) would leave for Israel and the Palestinian territories on New Year's Day and was scheduled to meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu (r. above) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"In these meetings, he will discuss the ongoing final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, among other issues," the statement read.
Kerry helped persuade the two sides to resume direct talks at the end of July, with the goal of reaching a peace deal within nine months. That target expires at the end of April, and Kerry has made several visits to the region to push negotiations along.
The announcement of what would be Kerry's tenth visit comes as Israel is expected to disclose plans next week to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel's settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for a future independent state is a key sticking point in negotiations, and there are fears the move will jeopardize peace efforts.
The new construction plans include 600 new homes in an enclave in east Jerusalem and roughly 800 additional homes in the West Bank, according to an Israeli official.
The news of Kerry's planned trip also coincides with the release of a statement by Netanyahu's office in which Israel confirmed that it would release another 26 Palestinian prisoners as soon as Monday.
Israel has agreed to free altogether 104 Palestinian prisoners during the peace talks. So far, it has released 52 in two separate batches, and a final group is to walk free in March 2014.
Netanyahu has on the previous occasions also used announcements of further settlement construction to placate Israeli hardliners likely to be angered by Palestinian prisoner releases.
Kerry recently said the construction of a new settlement called Israel's commitment to peace into question, and the European Union has also urged Israel not to announce any more construction. The settlements are generally considered illegal under international law.
tj/jlw (AP, AFP)