WASHINGTON - The United States will send envoy George Mitchell to the Middle East next week for talks toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, ending a push to convince Israel that it should halt settlement-building in the West Bank.
"We're looking for ways to create momentum," State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Wednesday. "We're adapting our approach, but we're not adapting our strategy. It is our belief at some point in this process the parties will have to return to negotiations."
After weeks of diplomacy aimed at persuading Israel to renew a freeze on settlement-building as a step to face-to-face negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Crowley said the United States had "determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time form the best basis for negotiations."
Israelis and Palestinians took turns Wednesday accusing each other of undermining peace talks.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "succeeded in torpedoing" the talks. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said the Palestinian strategy was "to avoid negotiations" and "blame Israel."
Direct talks between the two sides stalled about four weeks after their Sept. 1 start, after a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction expired and Netanyahu would not extend it.
A new U.S. approach could lead to a return to shuttle diplomacy by Mitchell, who acted as a middleman in peace negotiations before the brief face-to-face talks, said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
"This is obviously not what the administration wanted," he said in an interview. Still, indirect talks on borders and security issues may be able to "find some other way to get the parties back to the table," he said.
Before the talks broke down, the two sides had agreed to pursue a framework for a comprehensive accord within a year, addressing issues at the heart of the conflict such as the borders of a Palestinian state, security arrangements for Israel, and the status of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu "remains determined to continue the efforts to achieve a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians," Mark Regev, his spokesman, said from Jerusalem.
Erakat has said that the Palestinian Authority would pursue a bid for recognition of statehood at the U.N. Security Council if talks broke down.
In another development Wednesday, the Israeli government authorized plans to gradually open the Gaza border to exports.
Easing trade restrictions in the West Bank last year helped spark 7.2 percent economic growth in that territory, where Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has sought to demonstrate that a stronger Palestinian Authority won't threaten Israeli security.
The Gaza Strip is ruled by the Islamic Hamas, which Israel, the United States, and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. Israel's Security Cabinet said its decision would expand economic activity for Gazans.
Israel and Egypt blockaded Gaza after Hamas seized power there in 2007. Israel says the blockade keeps Hamas from rearming, while critics say it hurts ordinary Gazans.
Israel began easing the blockade in June after Israeli commandos carried out a deadly raid on a Turkish ship that was part of a Gaza-bound flotilla, but there are still tight restrictions on key construction materials.
Under the new regulations, Palestinians will be able to export furniture, textiles, and agricultural products, said Maj. Guy Inbar, an Israeli military spokesman. He said he expected shipments to begin soon.