The Obama administration criticized Israel Wednesday for designating two shrines in the West Bank as Israeli national heritage sites.
The criticism came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she hopes long-stalled peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians will resume.
Clinton told a congressional committee that groundwork is being laid to restart the talks with the help of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
She did not say exactly when the negotiations might resume, but her remarks come amid a flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity in the region.
The United States, Russia and their Middle East peace partners are trying to organize a strategy session among top diplomats next month in Moscow to prod the two sides to re-launch the negotiations.
"We hope that that will commence shortly," Clinton told the SenateAppropriations Committee, referring to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. "We think it is absolutely necessary that they begin to talk about the final-status issues that divide them, that have perpetuated the conflict over all of these years."
Underscoring those difficulties, the State Department on Wednesday sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government for adding two shrines in the West Bank to Israel's list of national heritage sites. The move, announced Sunday, sparked Palestinian protests and has drawn criticism from other quarters, including the United Nations.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the administration viewed the move as provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table.
Toner said U.S. displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank town of Hebron and the traditional tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem had been conveyed to senior Israeli officials by American diplomats.
The Palestinians claim all the West Bank as part of a future state and also protested the Israeli move as a provocation, a largely symbolic gesture. The move heightened long-standing tensions, particularly around the shrine in Hebron.
Jews revere the site as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where the Bible says the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried along with three of their wives. Muslims call it the al-Ibrahimi mosque, reflecting that Abraham is considered the father of both Judaism and Islam.
The U.S. and Russia are trying to convene a meeting of the so-called Quartet group of peacemakers - those two countries plus the European Union and the United Nations - in mid-March in Moscow, according to diplomats. A tentative date of March 19 has been discussed but is not yet confirmed.
The meeting would bring together Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton along with other European officials, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet's special representative.
It would seek to build on the work of Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, who has been shuttling back and forth to the region with only limited success in improving the atmosphere for a resumption in peace talks.
If held as planned, the meeting would follow a recent flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity in the Middle East, including a coming trip to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden in the second week of March.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is in Israel now to participate in this week's U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue, and Clinton's other two top deputies, Jacob Lew and William Burns, each returned from separate trips to the region in the past 10 days.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is due in Washington this week for talks with senior administration officials and will see Clinton at the State Department on Friday. Clinton herself just returned from a trip to Qatar and Saudi Arabia that coincided with a visit to Israel by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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