WASHINGTON - Secretary of State John Kerry will head to the Middle East next week to continue talks on an elusive Mideast peace deal just as Israel is poised to announce plans to build more Jewish settlements - a move expected to anger the Palestinians.
Kerry is scheduled 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 today.
The parties relaunched direct talks last summer with the goal of forging an accord within nine months. The target date expires at the end of April, and while that is not considered a deadline to end talks, there has been little, if any, tangible sign of progress so far. The U.S. routinely insists progress is being made, but has declined to disclose details about the talks.
Kerry has invested a great deal of personal prestige in the negotiations, repeatedly shuttling to the region and appointing senior officials to work closely with the sides. He named Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel, to help direct the negotiations, and retired Gen. John Allen, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has helped draft proposed security arrangements.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to the U.S. to block the latest round of Jewish settlements, which Israel is expected to announce next week, warning the move could jeopardize the U.S.-led peace effort.
The announcement of the new units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is expected just as Israel prepares to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners as part of a pledge it made last summer at the outset of peace talks. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously issued similar construction announcements to blunt hard-line criticism of prisoner releases. It will be the third of four planned releases of a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners.
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.
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 familiar with the plan. The official said Netanyahu has ordered the Housing Ministry to make preparations for a formal announcement next week. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been finalized.
Kerry, who has urged the Israelis to show restraint, recently said the construction of new settlements raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace. The European Union has also urged Israel not to announce any more construction, saying it would hold Israel responsible for any breakdown in the talks. There has been no U.S. or European reaction, however, to the settlement plans.
Kerry is hoping to arrange a "framework" peace agreement by April, and depending on the progress the sides make, could soon be presenting his own proposals, Palestinian officials say. A framework deal would address core issues of dispute, including the borders between Israel and a future Palestine, security arrangements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.