WASHINGTON — 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.
So far, Kerry has shuttled between Netanyahu and Abbas, who haven't spoken in person since September 2010. Members of Kerry's team have conducted direct talks with negotiators for the two sides.
"We are closer than we have been in years," Kerry said of the talks earlier this month, without offering details. The peace process broke down more than three years ago in a dispute over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Talk of progress should be taken "with a grain of salt," Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said this month. "The mood among Israelis and Palestinians is overwhelmingly sober," he said. "More than sober, it's pessimistic."
Netanyahu said this month that the burden is on the Palestinians to show they're willing to satisfy Israel's core needs for security and recognition as the "nation-state of the Jewish people." A poll released this month by the West Bank- based Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip expect the Kerry-led talks to fail.
Further complicating Kerry's next visit, Israel is expected to announce that it will build additional settlements on territory that Abbas wants as a Palestinian state. At the same time, Israel is to release additional Palestinian prisoners.
Two previous rounds of prisoner releases also were accompanied by announcements of new construction.
The Israeli government's pursuit of new settlement construction is a surmountable obstacle for the Obama administration, according to U.S. analysts of the Middle East.
Kerry "should keep his powder dry" in reacting to the settlements, Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said.
The linking of a settlement push with a prisoner release wasn't accidental, said David Schenker, a former Pentagon policy aide on Arab politics who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The timing of the announcement is an unfortunate, but predictable consequence of the ongoing balancing act of the Israeli government," Schenker said by e-mail. "Prisoner release — of Palestinians, many with blood on their hands — is extremely controversial and politically difficult for the government of Israel."
On July 29, when Kerry announced the accord to hold the talks, he said, "Our goal is to achieve a final-status agreement over the next nine months."
Kerry won a commitment from both sides to stick with the negotiations at least that long, regardless of the difficulties that might arise, a State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing closed-door deliberations, said at the time.