WASHINGTON - Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the Middle East next week to continue prodding Israel and Palestinians toward a long-elusive peace deal.

Kerry plans to leave on New Year's Day for Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he will discuss negotiations with leaders from both sides, the State Department said Saturday.

The parties relaunched direct talks over the summer with the goal of forging an accord within nine months - by the end of April - and there has been little if any tangible sign of progress so far.

Kerry's latest trip comes as peace efforts faced a new problem: An Israeli plan to build hundreds more homes in Jewish settlements led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to appeal to the U.S. to block the project.

The announcement of the new units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is expected next week as Israel prepared to release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners as part of a pledge it made at the outset of peace talks.