WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to narrow differences between Israelis and Palestinians in peace talks this week that are intended to guide the sides toward a deal in April, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday.

Kerry departs for the region on Wednesday in his first trip after a Christmas break. Israel and Palestinians resumed peace talks in July after a three-year break aimed at producing a peace agreement within nine months to end their decades-old conflict.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kerry did not expect a breakthrough during his visit but is pushing for the sides to agree on a framework of core principles, such as security, the future of Jerusalem and fate of refugees, as soon as possible.

Such a step would also demonstrate to both Israelis and Palestinians that progress is being made. Israel fulfilled part of the US-brokered package for talks by releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners on Tuesday, the third of four groups to go free.

"The framework is a basis upon which one could negotiate a final peace treaty because the outlines or the guidelines for what the final deal would look like would be agreed up, and then you would work intensively to fill out the details," the official said.

The official said the framework would act as a guideline for reaching a full peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians in April, in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state.

"We want to have a detailed consultation with them about these ideas that have been generated as a result of the negotiations between the parties themselves, and see whether they can serve as gap bridges which could lead to this agreement on the framework for permanent status negotiations," the official added.

The official dismissed earlier comments by US officials that an agreement in April would lead to a year of further talks aimed at a full-blown peace treaty. "It is a two-stage process in our minds, agreement on a framework for negotiations and then a permanent status agreement or a peace treaty" by April, the official said

After 20 rounds of talks Kerry wants to intensify talks further.

"We have established very well where the gaps are, but also generated some ideas that could help to serve as ways of bridging those gaps. The secretary's trip this time is to start to test those ideas with the two leaders," the official said.

The official said Kerry "has a real sense of urgency, a real sense of need to strike while the iron is hot. We consider the iron to be hot."

"We're going to work assiduously to try to reach this framework agreement as soon as possible," the official added.

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