U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will head to the Middle East later this week to continue talks on an elusive Mideast peace deal. Kerry is scheduled to leave on New Year's Day for Israel and the Palestinian territories where he will discuss the ongoing negotiations with leaders from both sides, the State Department said in a statement Saturday.
The parties re-launched direct talks at the end of July with the goal of forging an accord within nine months. That negotiating window closes 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 Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to the U.S. to block further settlement construction in Judea and Samaria, which Israel is expected to announce this week, warning that such a move could jeopardize the U.S.-led peace effort.
The announcement of the new housing units planned for Judea and Samaria and east Jerusalem is expected just as Israel prepares to release 26 Palestinian security prisoners as part of a pledge it made to the PA at the onset of the peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously issued similar construction announcements to blunt hard-line criticism of the prisoner releases. It will be the third of four planned release phases, comprising a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners.
The new construction plans include 600 new homes in east Jerusalem and roughly 800 additional homes in Judea and Samaria, according to an Israeli official familiar with the plan. An unnamed official told AP that Netanyahu has ordered the Housing and Construction Ministry to make preparations for a formal announcement by next week.
Kerry has generally urged Israel to show restraint regarding settlement construction. The European Union has also called on 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 expected upcoming announcement of new construction 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 Palestinian state, security arrangements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) spoke out over the weekend against members of the government who have said that the ongoing talks with the Palestinians are doomed to failure.
"I am angry at ministers in the Israeli government who give the public the feeling that 'Okay, let them keep talking, nothing will come of it anyway.' You can't be part of a government that is in the midst of conducting negotiations, and declare them a failure from the start," Peri said at an event held by the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs.
According to Peri, "Israel understands that it is moving toward consolidating into [settlement] blocs. We will need to evacuate a certain percentage of the settlements, something in the range of 15 to 25 percent, but this is certainly a reasonable compromise. Our construction must be concentrated in the blocs, where most of the settlers will be consolidated in a future agreement."