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Kerry heading to Middle East next week for peace talks

by Lesley Wroughton, Reuters

December 28, 2013 | 1:19 pm

Secretary of State John Kerry on Dec. 11. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Secretary of State John Kerry on Dec. 11. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for peace talks next week, a senior U.S. government official said on Saturday, days after Israel is due to free another group of Palestinian prisoners.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah late next week for more talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, resuming his intensive shuttle diplomacy after a Christmas break.

The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a "two-state solution" in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state.

Kerry wants the sides to agree to a framework for an interim accord ahead of a deal in April, which would launch another year of talks aimed at a full-blown peace treaty. A framework would demonstrate that progress is being made in talks that began in July, according to U.S. officials.

A framework would touch on all the main issues, including security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.

A major step in that process is the release of about two dozen Palestinian prisoners on Dec. 30, the third group to be freed since talks resumed in July. The release is seen by the United States as a vital confidence-building measure.

But the plan for the release was overshadowed by an announcement by Israel on Friday that it intends to build 1,400 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a move Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the would "destroy the peace process" and could be met with retaliation.

The Palestinians see the Jewish settlements as an obstacle to achieving a viable state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries consider Israel's settlements there illegal.

During his last visit to the region on Dec. 13, Kerry said both sides remained committed to peace talks and were on course to wrap up an interim deal in April.

A previous round of negotiations in 2010 broke down in a dispute over settlement construction, and since their revival this year, peace talks have shown little sign of progress.

Editing by Will Duham

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