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US given week for peace talks deal

Peace envoy George Mitchell is on his way to the Middle East 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 on Monday 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. 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.

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