msnbc.com news services
updated 9/27/2010 6:45:51 PM ET 2010-09-27T22:45:51

The Obama administration said Monday it was "disappointed" by Israel's refusal to extend a slowdown in settlement construction and dispatched special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell to the region in an urgent bid to salvage the stalled negotiations.

"We are disappointed but we remain focused on our long-term objective and will be talking to the parties about the implications of the Israeli decision," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, adding that Mitchell would "sort through with the parties where we go from here."
The comments came after Israel defied U.S. and international demands to extend a 10-month slowdown on settlement construction in the West Bank, raising the prospect of the Palestinians abandoning the Mideast peace talks in protest. The slowdown expired on Sunday and the Palestinians had been threatening to walk out of recently launched face-to-face talks if it was not extended.

Crowley said the U.S. position in support of extending the slowdown on settlements remained unchanged and praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for not immediately walking out of negotiations.

"In our discussions with both sides over the weekend, we encouraged restraint whatever decision was made on the Israeli side and the Palestinian response so far reflects that restraint," Crowley said. "We had called upon both sides to be constructive in the actions that they take from this point forward and certainly the restraint at this point is appreciated."

In a later briefing for reporters, Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton received a call Monday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow up on their earlier conversations on the settlements issue. Crowley declined to reveal the substance of the phone call.

Mitchell departs Monday evening and will hold meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials beginning on Tuesday. The specific schedule is still being worked out, Crowley said.

David Hale, a top Mitchell aide, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official with responsibility for the Middle East, are expected to accompany Mitchell.

Syria 'interested' in separate peace
Separately, Clinton met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in New York on Monday afternoon to gauge Syrian interest in reviving Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Al-Moualem is "very interested" in pursuing Israeli-Syrian peace, Crowley said Monday.

The Syrian foreign minister "was very interested in pursuing that and there was a pledge that we would develop some ideas going forward on developing that," Crowley told reporters.

The meeting will be the highest level U.S.-Syrian contact since Obama took office in January 2009, U.S. officials said.

Crowley said the U.S. is still focused on promoting negotiations on a "two-state solution" in which an independent Palestinian state exists beside a secure Israel. Crowley encouraged "constructive actions" toward reaching that goal.

"We believe if we can successfully get by this turbulence that we are experiencing now, there is absolutely an opportunity for a successful negotiation," he said.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 87 U.S. Senators — nearly the entire membership of the Senate — sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to press both sides to stay in the talks, which began early this month.

"Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started," they wrote.

U.N. chief: Settlements 'illegal'
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded Israel that the building of settlements on occupied territory was illegal.

Last week, the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers urged Israel to extend the moratorium.

A statement released by Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said the secretary-general was "disappointed that no such decision has been taken and (is) concerned at provocative actions taking place on the ground."

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Ban reiterated that "settlement activity is illegal under international law," and urged the Jewish state to fulfill its obligation to freeze further construction.

Other ministers attending the United Nations session expressed frustration at Israel.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who presided over the Security Council, said for the negotiations to continue, both sides needed to show good intentions and the settlement activities were contrary to that.

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"I remain very concerned that talks could falter on this issue and I call on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Government to show leadership to resolve this so the parties can focus on the real challenges ahead," said Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague.

During a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, Hague underlined "that the success of the direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians was in Israel's long-term strategic interests."

And French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he "deplored" Israel's decision not to prolong the moratorium.

"Colonization must stop," Kouchner said.

Lieberman, however, accused the Palestinians of seeking to undermine the negotiations, saying they had been forced into taking part by American pressure.

"We decided about the moratorium 10 months ago as a unilateral gesture of goodwill toward the Palestinians. During those 9 months the Palestinians wasted time and completely refused to accept this gesture and accused Israel that it's a fraud, that it's not serious," he said.

"Today they exert pressure to (continue) the same moratorium that they previously rejected."

3 dead in Gaza attack
In the central Gaza strip on Monday, an Israeli strike killed three gunmen belonging to the Islamic Jihad group, Palestinian medics said.

The Israeli military had no immediate comment. Israel often carries out strikes against militant targets in Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.

Medics said they had recovered three bodies from the site of an explosion that occurred after darkness fell outside Bureij refugee camp, near the Israel-Gaza frontier.

Hamas television reports said the blast had been caused either by an Israeli air strike or cross-border tank fire.

Information from Reuters and the Associated Press is included in this report.

Interactive: A history of talks

Explainer: Quest for Mideast peace: An overview

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pressing ahead with a bid to seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, despite a threatened U.S. veto. U.S. President Barack Obama says the path to peace in the Middle East is through resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The last round of such talks broke down in 2010 with the two sides far apart on key issues. Click on the links on the left to find out more.

    Sources: Reuters, The Associated Press, PBS, BBC, Council on Foreign Relations

  • Jerusalem

    Image: Jerusalem's Old City
    AP file

    Israel claims the entire city as its own undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and its sites sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in principle, but says Jerusalem would remain Israel's "indivisible and eternal" capital. Israel's claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem is not recognized internationally.

  • West Bank

    Image: Israeli soldiers patrol the old city in the West Bank city of Hebron
    Abed Al Hashlamoun  /  EPA

    One of the disputed Israeli-occupied territories with areas of limited Palestinian self-government. The scores of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank have long been a sore point in Mideast peacemaking. Israel began settling the territory soon after capturing it along with Gaza and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

    The Palestinians say the settlements, now home to roughly 500,000 Israelis interspersed among 2.6 million Palestinians, are gobbling up land they claim for a future state. The international community considers them illegal, and President Barack Obama has been an outspoken critic.

    The West Bank encompasses important cities such as East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem. It would make up the bulk of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, with precise borders to be drawn at the peace table. Expansion of Jewish housing makes those borders ever more complicated.

    A 10-month slowdown in West Bank housing construction by Israel expired in late September, and the Israeli government did not extend it despite international pleas to do so. That contributed to a breakdown in the last round of peace talks between the two sides.

  • Gaza Strip

    Image: Gaza Strip
    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    This 25-mile-long by 7-mile-wide strip of land lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea is home to about 1.6 million Palestinians and is under firm control by the militant Hamas movement. Hamas is opposed not only to the peace talks but also to Israel's very existence.

    Gaza, which is also supposed to be part of a negotiated Palestinian state, has been the staging point for rocket attacks on Israel, which has responded with a economically crippling naval blockade of the territory.

    Most of Gaza's residents are from refugee families that fled or were expelled from the land that became Israel in 1948. Of these, most live in impoverished refugee camps to which the United Nations delivers basic services such as health and education.

    Israel began curtailing trade and travel in Gaza after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Israel and many Western nations consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas seized control of Gaza the following year, expelling members of the rival Fatah movement.

    Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers say they will never give Israel what it most wants from a Middle East deal, which is recognition of the Jewish state and a legitimate place in the region. They see their Fatah rivals in the West Bank, who have been open to negotiating with Israel, as appeasers and traitors to the Palestinian cause.

  • Golan Heights

    A fortified and strategically important hilly area on the border of Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. The Golan Heights were part of Syria until 1967, when they were captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

    Syria has said it wants to secure the return of the Golan Heights as part of any peace deal. A deal with Syria would also involve the dismantling of Jewish settlements in the territory.

  • Egypt

    Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel. Despite Arab world pressure, Cairo has adhered at least to the formal requirements of its peace treaty.

    Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, had played the role of mediator at several very critical junctures in the peace process with the Palestinians and was a key U.S. ally in the tumultuous region. The U.S. underwrites much of Egypt's foreign aid.

    But more recently, Israel's relations with Egypt have deteriorated since Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising in February 2011. In September, an Egyptian mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and forced Israeli diplomats to be evacuated.

  • Syria

    Damascus is one of Israel's harshest opponents, and supports a number of armed groups that carry out attacks against Israel. Israel has condemned Syria for its support for the Hamas Islamic government in Gaza.

    Tensions between Syria and Israel rose in 2010 after Israeli President Shimon Perez accused Syria of supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which the U.S. classifies as a foreign terrorist organization. Israel has warned that it will respond to missile attacks from Hezbollah by launching immediate retaliation against Syria itself.

    Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups based in Syria have rejected any move by the Palestinian Authority to resume direct peace talks with Israel.

    Syria has accused Israel of posing a threat to the world with its "huge military nuclear arsenal."

    Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has found itself under international pressure recently, condemned by leaders around the world for a bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that began in mid-March 2011.

  • Jordan

    Jordan is considered a very important country in resolving the Mideast conflict due to its proximity to Israel and the occupied territories and its large population of Palestinian refugees.

    Jordan, along with Egypt, are the only Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan is also a strategic ally to the United States in the Middle East.

    Amman has long maintained close security cooperation with Israel but has criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians and fears a spillover of violence if Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians.

    Jordan's King Abdullah was quoted as saying in September 2011 that Jordan and the Palestinians were now in a stronger position than Israel, telling a group of academics that the Arab uprisings had weakened Israel's position.

  • Lebanon

    Lebanon, a small Middle East sovereign state, has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.

    Dozens of private armies grew out of Lebanon's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and still flourish 20 years later.

    A period of relative stability was shattered in 2006 when an all-out 34-day war between Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim political group with a militant wing the U.S. classifies as a terrorist organization, and Israel caused significant civilian deaths and heavy damage to Lebanon's civil infrastructure.

    Hezbollah is a central player in Lebanon. Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and it makes decisions that could lead to war without the involvement of the Lebanese state.

    The power balance worries the U.S. and Israel, Hezbollah's sworn enemy.

    U.N. peacekeepers have been charged with monitoring Lebanon's southern border with Israel since 1978. The force was boosted to almost 12,000 troops after Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought in 2006.

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