State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Kerry will discuss with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a proposed framework to serve as a guideline for addressing all core issues in the decades-long dispute. The core issues include the borders between Israel and a future Palestine, security arrangements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.
The two sides resumed peace talks in July under heavy pressure from Kerry. As a precondition, the Palestinians were forced to drop a demand for a halt in construction of new Jewish settlements. In exchange, Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners it has detained for years.
Kerry, who is scheduled to leave on New Year's Day for Israel and the Palestinian territories, has invested a lot of time conducting shuttle negotiations in hopes of reaching a deal 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.
Harf said Kerry hoped to narrow gaps in the two parties' positions, but it is not clear whether any agreement on a framework would be reached during the trip.
"It's only a proposed framework at this point. .. This framework would address all the core issues," Harf said.
"Some people say this would be an interim agreement. No, that's not the case. It would address the guidelines around all the core issues that are part of the final status negotiations."
Kerry's trip coincides with the third of four releases of a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli detention. Israel has announced the names of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners to be released this week. All have served sentences of between 19 and 28 years.
"The Israeli government's commitment to release Palestinian prisoners helped enable the start and continuation of the final status negotiations, and we believe this is a positive step forward in the overall process," Harf said.
Israeli hard-liners typically oppose the release of Palestinian prisoners and, as with past releases, the Israeli government plans to announce the construction of new Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank- a move expected to anger the Palestinians.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and more than 550,000 Israelis live in areas gained during the conflict. The Palestinians claim them as parts of a future independent state and criticize Israeli settlement construction as a sign of bad faith.
Abbas appealed to the U.S. to block the latest round of Jewish settlements, warning the move could jeopardize the U.S.-led peace effort.
Kerry has urged the Israelis to show restraint, and recently said the construction of new settlements raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace. The European Union has also urged Israel not to announce any more construction, saying it would hold Israel responsible for any breakdown in the talks.
Harf stopped short of criticizing the latest expected settlement announcement, because it has not been formally announced.
"We've made it very clear throughout this process what our position is on settlements," Harf said. "And we encourage all sides to take steps to create a positive environment. When we've had issues over these past few months at times we've said so. But we're keeping the discussions of these negotiations private, for the reason that we've always said, which is to give them the best chance of success."