Kerry heading to Mideast to seek framework for peace deal by April

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WASHINGTON -- The United States will begin this week to present potential solutions to disagreements between Israel and the Palestinians as an April deadline for a peace deal approaches, a senior State Department official close to negotiations said Tuesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry will test U.S. proposals during meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders set to begin Thursday, when he returns to the region.

The goal is an outline to guide the most intensive and difficult phase of the direct negotiations Mr. Kerry prodded the two sides to begin last summer.

Mr. Kerry set a nine-month deadline that would produce a final peace deal and establish an independent Palestinian state by late April.

The framework agreement at issue now would commit the two sides to the parameters of a final deal. Details would be filled in over the coming months, but the outline would be a milestone that shows the largely secretive discussions are worthwhile.

"The framework is a basis from which one could negotiate a final peace treaty, because the outline or the guidelines of what the final deal would look like would be agreed upon," the senior U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview Mr. Kerry's discussions in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The official said Mr. Kerry does not expect any "breakthroughs" this week but does want the two sides to agree to the framework terms fairly soon. Those terms would govern talks on the thorniest issues, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state on land Israel now occupies, and make it hard for either side to backtrack.

All sides have acknowledged that the ambitious timeline to resolve the decades-old conflict could slip, but Israelis and Palestinian negotiators have kept their word to remain at the table for talks that have now gone about 20 rounds.

Negotiators "have established very well where the gaps are, but also established some or generated some ideas that could help to serve as ways of bridging those gaps," the senior official said.

Israel held to a key condition for talks early Tuesday, with the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences for killing Israelis. It was the third of four scheduled releases for a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners, all serving 19 years or more in Israeli jails for crimes committed before the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in turn, has held off on plans to seek further recognition of the Palestinian government through the United Nations, a path that could confer de facto statehood without input from Israel. The United States opposes that route.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas have not met directly since talks resumed in July. A face-to-face meeting, possibly with Mr. Kerry as moderator, would be a significant sign of progress. The senior U.S. official said such a meeting would likely follow agreement on the framework terms.

The official acknowledged the risks of raising the profile of talks to that level, given that the last direct talks between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu ended with each accusing the other of intransigence and obstructionism. All direct talks halted after that brief 2010 exchange.

U.S. negotiators are struggling with how to describe Mr. Kerry's goal of an interim agreement without diluting his larger aim to get a final deal by the end of April. The senior official insisted Tuesday that the framework under discussion now is not an end in itself, but would exist purely to guide and push the parties to a final agreement.

There are about 4,700 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails, most of them convicted in Israeli military courts of participating in or planning terror attacks.

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