Kerry plans return to Mideast for Israeli-Palestinian talks

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is set to return to the Middle East on New Year’s Day in his effort to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders together and negotiate a peace agreement.

Kerry will meet in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in Ramallah with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Saturday in a statement.

The top U.S. diplomat is under pressure to demonstrate tangible progress now that he’s passed the halfway point of the nine-month timetable he set for a resolution to core Israeli- Palestinian differences — over borders, security, the rights of refugees and the status of Jerusalem — that have confounded U.S.-led efforts at mediation for years.

“Right now, the effort is to reach a framework agreement that will guide the negotiations in the direction of a final deal that will end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Sunday in an interview on Israel’s Army Radio. While “the framework agreement could be more detailed, or less detailed,” it has to let the two sides know where the talks are heading, he said.

Shapiro tempered expectations for Kerry’s trip this week, saying, “I don’t know if there will be a breakthrough in this particular visit, but he may return here later in January.”

It will be Kerry’s 10th visit to the Middle East as he tries to end the conflict, and one symbolic sign of movement would be a face-to-face meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.