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Kerry to return next week to Middle East

WASHINGTON (AP) - Secretary of State John Kerry will head to the Middle East next week to continue talks on an elusive peace deal just as Israel is poised to announce plans to build more Jewish settlements --a move expected to anger Palestinians.

The State Department says Kerry is scheduled to leave on New Year's Day for Israel and the Palestinian territories where he'll discuss ongoing negotiations with leaders from both sides.

The parties relaunched direct talks last summer with the goal of forging an accord within nine months. The target date expires at the end of April, and while that is not considered a deadline to end talks, there has been little, if any, tangible sign of progress so far.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has appealed to the U.S. to block the latest round of Jewish settlements, which Israel is expected to announce next week, warning the move could jeopardize the U.S.-led peace effort.