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U.S. Rushes to Keep Mideast Peace Talks Alive

Washington's special Mideast envoy, using a slim lifeline from the Palestinians, rushed to the region on Tuesday on an emergency mission to keep peace talks from collapsing just weeks after they began.

Israel's decision to resume new West Bank settlement construction after a 10-month moratorium expired on midnight Sunday has provoked Palestinian threats to walk out of the talks. It has also caused new friction between Israel and its powerful U.S. patron, which said it was "disappointed" with Israel's refusal to relent.

On Monday night, Washington dispatched special envoy George Mitchell to the region to try to bridge gaps that Palestinian, Israel and American officials failed to close in a frenetic round of meetings in the U.S. last week.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave U.S. mediation more time to work when he announced Monday he wouldn't decide whether to abandon the talks before consulting senior Arab officials in Cairo next week. An Arab League official has told The Associated Press that Arab foreign ministers were expected to endorse whatever position Abbas took.

A senior Palestinian official said the Palestine Liberation Organization's 18-member decision-making body would meet Wednesday or Thursday to formulate a position before Abbas meets with the League envoys. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal Palestinian deliberations.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley praised Abbas for not immediately walking out of the talks and chided Israel for resisting international pressure to halt new housing starts in the West Bank - territory that Palestinians claim as part of their future state.

"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," Crowley said Monday, adding that Mitchell would "sort through with the parties where we go from here."

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and senior European officials have also criticized Israel's decision.

In Paris on Tuesday, the Palestinian leader urged Israel to halt new West Bank settlement construction as long as Mideast peace talks continue, saying he feared the two sides might miss a "historic opportunity" if Israel refuses to renew a just-expired freeze on the building.

"If settlement stops, we will continue the negotiations. If not, we will stop," Abbas said. "We cannot destroy this hope (for peace) with things that are secondary, like settlements," he said.

Palestinian leaders, he added, hope Israel will halt settlement building "as long as there are negotiations."

Immediately after the restrictions expired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to Abbas to keep negotiating. Netanyahu has indicated he would be prepared to limit new building, but has refused to agree to a complete halt.

Israeli Construction Freeze Ends

Netanyahu, a settlement champion who agreed under duress to impose the moratorium in late November, has told the U.S. that he cannot extend it because his partners in Israel's pro-settlement government oppose such a move. But he has indicated he would be willing to impose some limitations on construction.

Israeli defense officials have suggested there might be an undeclared freeze, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak quietly exercising his authority to quash any new building projects.

Abbas told the French radio that Netanyahu "should know that peace is more important than settlements."

Meanwhile, a catamaran carrying Jewish activists to the Gaza shore was overtaken Tuesday by the Israeli Navy. The group did not resist and no violence resulted. Israel halted the ship and its crew as part of a three year blockade on the territory.

In Gaza violence late Monday, three Palestinian militants were killed in a clash with Israeli soldiers, both sides said. The Israelis said their forces fired at militants near the border of central Gaza as they were about to launch rockets at Israel. A small, al Qaeda-inspired group claimed responsibility on Tuesday.

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