US Secretary of State John Kerry will make a New Year’s Day trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories aiming to push forward peace talks as a nine-month deadline looms.
“On Jan. 1, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Jerusalem to meet with [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and to Ramallah to meet with [Palestinian] President [Mahmud] Abbas,” US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Saturday.
“In these meetings, he will discuss the ongoing final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, among other issues,” she added in a statement.
After persuading the two sides to resume talks, Kerry has been pushing the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach a peace deal ahead of a deadline set to expire in late April.
A Palestinian official told reporters that Kerry would meet with Abbas on Saturday.
Psaki did not say how long Kerry would stay in Israel, but Palestinian sources said it would be a “number of days.”
The announcement of Kerry’s 10th visit to the region since March comes as the Israeli government gave the green light on Saturday for 26 Palestinian prisoners to be freed.
A source in Netanyahu’s office said the 26 will be released today.
Netanyahu has agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to the US-backed peace talks and groups of inmates were freed on Aug. 13 and Oct. 30.
“Their release should come on Monday night after the 48-hour delay given for appeals from victims’ families to the [Israeli] Supreme Court,” the official in Netanyahu’s office told reporters on condition of anonymity.
After the third group is released, the remaining inmates are due to walk free in March.
The previous releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state, provoking international condemnation and Palestinian officials to say Israeli settlement plans are destroying the peace process.
Netanyahu is expected to announce plans this week for a further 1,400 homes in settlements in the West Bank, including annexed Arab East Jerusalem.
Israeli daily Maariv reported on Thursday that Netanyahu had initially agreed to US and EU appeals to delay an announcement of new construction, but changed his mind under pressure from his coalition partners to avoid projecting a “signal of weakness.”
Kerry has insisted that concrete progress is being been made in the peace talks, but is remaining mum on details.
“I’m personally encouraged that very tough issues are beginning to take shape,” he said in an interview with ABC television on Dec. 15.
“But we’ve agreed not to be talking about what we’re doing because it just creates great expectations. It creates pressure. It creates opposition, in some cases,” he said.
“I think it’s much better for us to do exactly what we’ve been doing, which is negotiate quietly and privately,” Kerry added.
Israeli and Arab media reports say the plan envisaged by Washington would see Israel maintain a military presence on the border for 10 to 15 years after a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
An international force would be acceptable to the Palestinians, but Israel opposes such a solution.
During Kerry’s last visit to the West Bank on Dec. 12, Abbas ruled out any formula that would allow an indefinite Israeli troop presence on Palestinian soil.