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Kerry under pressure in Mideast peace effort

Secretary of State John Kerry is under pressure on his 10th visit to the Middle East to show tangible progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement after passing the midpoint of a nine-month timetable he set for resolution of core differences.

The top U.S. diplomat, set to return to the region on New Year's Day, 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 yesterday in a statement.

One symbolic sign of movement would be a face-to-face meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders as Kerry seeks to narrow 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.

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."

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."

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