Settlements - AP - Sept 27, 2010
Instead of settlement construction, the international community should focus on the injustices of the occupation. Photo by AP
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Special Envoy for Middle East Peace former Sen. George Mitchell speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Sept. 15, 2010 Photo by AP

The United States said on Monday it was disappointed by Israel's decision to allow its partial moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank to expire.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters 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 follow-up talks.

Responding to Israel's decision to end the 10-month settlement freeze on Sunday, Crowley expressed regret on the part of the United States. "We are disappointed, but we remain focused on our long-term objective, and we'll be talking to the parties about the implications of the Israeli decision," Crowley told reporters.

"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 said.

Crowley said that he hoped the Arab League will continue to support direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks following Israel's decision to allow its partial settlement building freeze to expire.

"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.

Crowley said the U.S. is focused on its long-term goal of 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.

Meanwhile on Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded Israel on Monday that the building of settlements on occupied territory was illegal, and said he was disappointed by the government's failure to extend its partial ban on further West Bank construction.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said on Monday she "strongly regretted" Israel's failure to renew its partial freeze on construction in occupied Palestinian territory.

"The position of the EU is very clear: settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible… [It is] in everybody's interest to find a satisfactory way for the negotiations to continue and gather momentum," Ashton's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic said.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague also commented on Israel's decision to discontinue the settlement freeze while speaking at the United Nations on Monday.

"I am very disappointed to hear that the moratorium has not been renewed. 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 Hague.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged Israel on Monday to stop building in West Bank settlements, while speaking at a joint press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris.

Sarkozy also said he would ask Abbas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to participate in peace talks in Paris before the end of October.

Asked if the call for more talks in Paris complicated peace efforts initiated by Washington, Sarkozy said nothing could be done without U.S. support but that was not enough in itself to secure a lasting solution to the Middle East conflict.

"Nothing will be resolved without strong American backing," he said. "But does the strong commitment that's needed have to be exclusive? That's been the question for 10 years, since Camp David. If such an exclusive commitment was enough, we'd know it."

Sarkozy backed Abbas's position that the construction of settlements should be frozen for another 3-4 months.

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 negotiations in protest.

The slowdown expired on Sunday and the Palestinians had been threatening to walk out of talks if it was not extended.