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."
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.
"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 attackIn 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.