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Kerry plans Middle East speech as Israel moves to ease tension

[TEL AVIV] US Secretary of State John Kerry will offer a "comprehensive vision" for how Middle East peace can be achieved, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked a discussion of new construction in Jerusalem in an effort to reduce tensions with Washington.

[TEL AVIV] US Secretary of State John Kerry will offer a "comprehensive vision" for how Middle East peace can be achieved, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked a discussion of new construction in Jerusalem in an effort to reduce tensions with Washington.

With barely three weeks left in US President Barack Obama's term, Mr Kerry will lay out his plan Wednesday as friction over Mr Netanyahu's policies threatens to leave Israel more isolated internationally.

Along with the Kerry speech, France is gathering dozens of foreign ministers in Paris on Jan 15 to discuss the conflict. Israeli officials say that may result in a proposal they view as unfavorable, which could then be taken to the UN for a seal of approval.

The US last week broke with tradition and didn't veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which demands that Israel halt all building in areas it won in the 1967 Middle East war and brands construction there illegal.

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Describing himself as a "lifelong friend of Israel", Mr Kerry defended the US abstention in a Dec 23 statement, saying it couldn't "stand in the way of a resolution at the United Nations that makes clear that both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace".

Mr Netanyahu lashed out at Mr Obama after the vote, saying the US pushed the resolution behind the scenes and broke a commitment to shield Israel from conditions imposed by the UN. 

Mr Obama has been highly critical of Israel's settlements from the moment he entered office, but his administration denies it was behind the UN resolution. The US decision to abstain rather than veto the resolution allowed it to pass.

Mr Netanyahu moved Wednesday to limit friction with the US, intervening to get a Jerusalem municipal committee to postpone a review of plans for hundreds of new apartments in east Jerusalem, which would have contradicted Resolution 2334. 

The committee "will continue to develop Jerusalem for the benefit of all residents, without prejudice and without political considerations," the municipality said in a statement.

Committee member Hanan Rubin said the plans could be reviewed at a later date.  Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said Mr Netanyahu remains under pressure to respond to the UN vote with a wave of new building.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party opposes a Palestinian state, has called for Israel to annex large swathes of the West Bank, though Mr Netanyahu has ordered Cabinet members to cease all talk of annexation for now.

"No matter what, he has to wait for the Trump administration before doing anything substantial in the settlements," Mr Sandler said.

"He's aware that Kerry's speech is coming up, the Paris conference is coming up and Obama still has ways to hurt him."

Mr Netanyahu is hoping for better relations with US President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office Jan 20. Mr Trump has pledged to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his choice of ambassador to Israel, attorney David Friedman, is a strong supporter of the settlements.

On Tuesday Mr Trump appointed Thomas Bossert, a campaign adviser on Israeli issues, to be his assistant for homeland security and counter terrorism.

Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi said on a conference call Wednesday that Mr Kerry's decision to give a speech on the Middle East was legitimate and the government would wait to hear the content before commenting.

On Tuesday, the Egyptian newspaper Youm7 reported that Mr Kerry and US National Security Adviser Susan Rice met with Palestinian officials in mid-December and agreed to cooperate on the UN resolution, asking that the discussions be kept secret.

Mr Kerry also said he would propose a plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provided the Palestinians supported it, the paper said. Israel Radio said PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat denied the report.

In a posting on his Facebook page, Mr Netanyahu said the UN had no legal justification for its resolution against Israeli settlements, and was motivated instead by "ignorance and malice".

The British Mandate that governed the area before the State of Israel was established anchors Jewish legal rights in the West Bank and elsewhere, he said.

A senior Israeli official said the government is weighing fresh steps against UN agencies it considers particularly hostile, including the UN Relief and Works Agency serving Palestinian refugees; the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and the UN observer force on the Golan Heights.

Israel could restrict new recruits to the agencies, delay visas for their officials and halt or delay visits of experts to those agencies, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.

Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, said such steps against the agency would be unprecedented.