Peace envoy George Mitchell was on his way to the Middle East today in an urgent bid to salvage stalled peace talks after the US criticised Israel’s refusal to extend its partial ban on settlement building.
“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 PJ Crowley said, adding that Mr Mitchell would “sort through with the parties where we go from here”.
The comments came after Israel defied US and international demands to extend a 10-month slowdown on settlement construction in the West Bank, raising the prospect of the Palestinians abandoning the Middle East 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.
Mr Crowley said the US 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,” Mr 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, Mr Crowley said US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had received a call from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday to follow up on their earlier conversations on the settlements issue. He declined to reveal the substance of the phone call.
Mr Mitchell will hold meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials beginning today. The specific schedule is still being worked out, Mr Crowley said.
He said the US was still focused on promoting negotiations on a “two-state solution” in which an independent Palestinian state exists beside a secure Israel and encouraged “constructive actions” towards 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,” Mr Crowley said.
Meanwhile, a cross-party group of 87 US senators – nearly the entire membership - 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.
America’s criticism of Israel’s latest move came after United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon reminded the Jewish state that the building of settlements on occupied territory was illegal.
Mr Ban said he was “disappointed” by the government’s failure to extend its partial ban on further West Bank construction.
Last week, the “Quartet” of Middle East peacemakers urged Israel to extend the moratorium.
A statement released by Mr 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”.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly ministerial meeting in New York, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “very concerned” peace talks could falter and called on Mr Netanyahu to “show leadership” to resolve the impasse.
During a meeting with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, Mr Hague stressed that “the success of the direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians was in Israel’s long-term strategic interests”.
French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said he “deplored” Israel’s decision not to prolong the moratorium. “Colonisation must stop,” he said.
But Mr Lieberman 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 nine 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.”