Kerry to return to Middle East in push for Israeli-Palestinian peace deal
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk to reporters from a room overlooking the snow-covered city of Jersusalem during a meeting Friday, Dec. 12, 2013. (AP / Brian Snyder, Pool)
Published Saturday, December 28, 2013 7:31PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, December 28, 2013 10:34PM EST
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the Middle East next week to continue prodding Israel and the Palestinians toward a long-elusive peace deal.
Kerry plans to leave on New Year's Day for Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he will discuss ongoing negotiations with leaders from both sides, the State Department said in a statement Saturday.
The parties re-launched direct talks over the summer with the goal of forging an accord within nine months. The target date expires at the end of April, and there has been little if any tangible sign of progress so far.
Kerry's latest trip comes as peace efforts faced a new problem: An Israeli plan to build hundreds of additional homes in Jewish settlements led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to appeal to the U.S. to block the project.
The announcement of the new units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is expected next week as Israel prepared to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners as part of a pledge it made last summer at the outset of peace talks. In the past, construction announcements have accompanied prisoner releases, which often draw criticism from Israeli hardliners.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and more than 550,000 Israelis live in areas gained during the conflict. The Palestinians claim them as parts of a future independent state and criticize Israeli settlement construction as a sign of bad faith.
Peace talks resumed in July after a nearly five-year break. Kerry pushed the Palestinians to drop their demand for a halt in settlement construction while Israel agreed to release 104 of the longest-serving Palestinian prisoners it holds.