September 28, 2010 - 12:00am

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.

However, on Tuesday Abbas told Europe 1 Radio that even though Palestinians are interested in continuing peace talks " if [Israeli] colonization continues we will be forced to end them."

"We will wait until after a meeting between Palestinians, and an Arab forum meeting on Oct. 4 ... So (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu has a week to decide," said Abbas.

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".

Immediately after the restrictions expired, 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.

Netanyahu, 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.

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-Qaida-inspired group claimed responsibility on Tuesday.


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