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Kerry heads to Middle East next week for peace talks: U.S. official

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint news conference with Philippines' Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario at the Depar
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint news conference with Philippines' Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario at the Depar

By Lesley Wroughton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for peace talks next week, the State Department said on Saturday, in a visit that will come days after Israel is due to free another group of Palestinian prisoners.

Kerry will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Wednesday for more talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, resuming his intensive shuttle diplomacy after a Christmas break.

"In these meetings, he will discuss the ongoing final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, among other issues," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

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 step in that process is the release of Palestinian prisoners late Monday or early Tuesday, 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.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that 26 prisoners would be released at least 48 hours after their names are made public later on Saturday. That would allow Israelis to contest the amnesty at the Supreme Court, which traditionally rejects such appeals.

The prisoners had been jailed for deadly violence committed before a 1993 Israeli-Palestinian interim peace accord, the statement said. A total of 104 inmates are included in the four-stage release.

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 consider Israel's settlements there illegal.

During his last visit to the region on December 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 peace talks have shown little sign of progress since their revival this year.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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