US dismayed by Israel decision

The United States said on Monday it was disappointed by Israel’s decision to allow a freeze on new settlement building to expire but was trying to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace talks alive.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defied U.S. President Barack Obama’s wishes on Sunday by allowing a 10-month, self-imposed Israeli moratorium on new settlement construction in the occupied West Bank to lapse.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held back from carrying out his threat to abandon the talks if settlement building resumed, saying he will decide after an Oct. 4 Arab League forum and consultations with a Palestine Liberation Organization council.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. Middle East envoy former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was in touch with Israeli and Palestinian officials and a lower-level U.S. team would visit the region this week for more talks.

“We are disappointed but we remain focused on our long-term objective and we will be talking to the parties about the implications of the Israeli decision,” Crowley told reporters in New York, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is having meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

“We recognize that given the decision yesterday we’ve still got a dilemma that we have to resolve and there are no direct negotiations scheduled at this point but we will be in touch with the parties to see how we move ahead,” Crowley added.

The United States is trying to find a way to keep alive direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — launched on Sept. 2 in Washington — despite Abbas’ threat to walk out if the moratorium lapsed.

The U.S. hope appears to be that the Arab League meeting early next month might endorse continued negotiations and thereby provide Abbas sufficient political cover to resume meeting Netanyahu despite the settlement decision.

“We will have further conversations with key countries in the coming days and we hope that the Arab League meeting will continue to affirm its support for the process,” Crowley told reporters.

“We believe that if we can successfully get by this turbulence that we’re experiencing now there is absolutely an opportunity for a successful negotiation,” he added.

David Hale, a top Mitchell aide, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official with responsibility for the Middle East, will travel to the region later this week for talks with both sides, Crowley said.

Separately, Clinton was scheduled to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in New York on Monday afternoon to gauge Syrian interest in reviving Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

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