RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: US Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the Middle East next week for talks with Palestinian and Israeli officials on the peace process, a Palestinian official said Saturday.
"Mr Kerry has told the Palestinian Authority he will return to the region on January 4 to discuss the peace process and negotiations with Israel," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
According to a well-informed Palestinian source, the US chief diplomat plans to stay in the Middle East for a "number of days" in what would be his 10th visit to the region since March.
Kerry, who helped to launch nine-month direct talks between the two sides in July, insisted this month that concrete progress had been made in the peace talks.
But he said details would be kept under wraps as talking about any agreements could be counterproductive.
"I'm personally encouraged that very tough issues are beginning to take shape," he said in an interview with ABC television on December 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.
"I think it's much better for us to do exactly what we've been doing, which is negotiate quietly and privately," he added.
Israeli and Arab media reports say the plan envisaged by Washington would see Israel maintain a military presence on the border for some 10-15 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 December 12, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas ruled out any formula that would allow an indefinite Israeli troop presence on Palestinian soil.
At an Arab League meeting in Cairo on December 21, Abbas also rejected any further interim agreements and any prolongation of the talks beyond their agreed end on April 29.
Under the US-brokered deal that led to the relaunch of the talks, Israel is to release a further 26 Palestinian prisoners on Monday.
Israel agreed to free a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners during the peace talks, and has already released 52 in two separate batches. After the third group is released, the remaining inmates are due to walk free in March 2014.
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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce plans next 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 in order not to project a "signal of weakness".