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Kerry heading to Jerusalem, Ramallah next week

John Kerry -- NDN/AP

(CNN) — Jerusalem, and Ramallah, West Bank: two crucial stops for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his ongoing attempt to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry will travel to those cities on New Year’s Day to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, respectively, “to discuss ongoing final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, among other issues,” the State Department said in a statement Saturday.

This will be the ninth trip to the region for Kerry, who has said that leaders remain “as determined as ever” to negotiate a peace deal.

He kicked off talks in July, but in November, both sides dug into their decades-old trenches and passed around blame.

Israelis and Palestinians are four months into a nine-month deadline given to them by Kerry to reach a peace deal, with little visible progress.

But just hours after Kerry’s plans were made public, Israel announced that 26 Palestinian prisoners will be freed over the next two days. The release is part of the deal that set in place the current peace talks, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

All of the released prisoners perpetrated offenses prior to the Oslo accords and have served sentences of 19-28 years, the Israeli statement said.

With direct negotiations between the two sides flailing, the United States seems to have moved into a more muscular role as mediator by presenting its own bridging proposals to the parties instead of relying on the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate among themselves.

On Kerry’s last visit to the Middle East, earlier this month, talk of Iran’s nuclear program took center stage.

That visit was the first following the deal Iran reached with the United States and five other world powers over its nuclear program.

The agreement calls for the easing of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for increased inspections and limits on the country’s uranium enrichment program, which many international analysts fear is meant for military purposes.

Netanyahu has strongly criticized the agreement.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu has said that security is a must.

Israel has insisted its own troops must remain in the Jordan Valley, as opposed to the international troops that patrol the tense borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Palestinians have rejected, out of hand, having Israeli soldiers within the borders of their own states.

Palestinians have further argued that Israel has been sowing distrust by continuing the construction of thousands of Jewish settlement units on the West Bank and other land that Palestinians claim as theirs.

CNN’s Mark Morgenstein contributed to this report

The-CNN-Wire
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