Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for talks this week, according to a senior U.S. government official, as hopes for a reducing tensions there have continued to fade.
The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry would visit Jerusalem and Ramallah late this week for more talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, resuming his shuttle diplomacy after a Christmas break.
The United States says it 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.
The framework would touch on all the main issues, including security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.
Israel is scheduled to release 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 U.S. as a vital measure to build confidence in the talks among the participants.
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 occupied West Bank, a move Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said 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 — including the U.S. — officially consider Israel's settlements there illegal.
Erekat on Sunday also condemned an Israeli committee vote in favor of a measure that would annex the Jordan Valley -- placing it under Israeli sovereignty -- and added that it showed "indifference" toward international law. Israel already controls 94 percent of the Jordan Valley, according to OXFAM International, a human rights group.
Recent violence in the region, including an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday that killed a 3-year-old girl in Gaza, could challenge Kerry's efforts.
A previous round of negotiations in 2010 broke down in a dispute over settlement construction, and since their revival this year, talks have shown little sign of progress.
Al Jazeera and Reuters