WASHINGTON — The Obama administration sharply criticized Israel on Wednesday for designating the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb, both in West Bank cities, to the list of Jewish heritage sites marked for renovation and preservation.The government's decision, announced Sunday, sparked Palestinian protests and has drawn criticism from other quarters, including the United Nations. The Palestinians claim all the West Bank as part of a future state andalso protested the Israeli move as a provocation, a largely symbolicgesture. The move heightened long-standing tensions, particularly inHebron, where Palestinians planned to march Thursday to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the Baruch Goldstein massacre.US 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 US displeasure with the designations of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the flash point 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 criticism came as US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday 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 US special envoy George Mitchell.She did not say exactly when the negotiations might resume, but her remarks come amid a flurry of US 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 relaunch the negotiations."We hope that that will commence shortly," Clinton told the Senate Appropriations 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."The US 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 MinisterSergey Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policychief Catherine Ashton along with other European officials, includingformer British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the Quartet'sspecial representative.Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is in Israel now toparticipate in this week's US-Israel Strategic Dialogue, and Clinton'sother two top deputies, Jacob Lew and William Burns, each returned fromseparate trips to the region in the past 10 days.Defense Minister Ehud Barak is due in Washington this week for talkswith senior administration officials and will see Clinton at the StateDepartment on Friday. Clinton herself just returned from a trip toQatar and Saudi Arabia that coincided with a visit to Israel by AdmiralMike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.