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Obama Settlement Demands Stir Rising Tensions in Israel

Israeli police officers stand guard as a bulldozer demolishes a makeshift structure in an unauthorized outpost near the West Bank city of Ramallah Wednesday. (Reuters Photo)

With President Obama set to deliver a high-profile speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt, tensions are flaring in neighboring Israel over the U.S. president's latest demands on the Jewish state. 

Top Israeli officials continue to rebuff Obama's call for the country to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank. Obama's demand, which he reiterated strongly in an interview with National Public Radio ahead of his trip, is seen as a far tougher stance than that taken by his predecessor in the White House

Whereas prior administrations generally opposed settlement construction, they allowed for "natural growth" of existing settlements. 

But speaking to NPR, Obama said he has told the Israelis "both privately and publicly" that their obligation includes a freeze on settlements, "including natural growth." 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have rejected that demand. And Israeli media have fixed on the spat as the U.S. president tours Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and later France and Germany, while skipping Israel. 

The Israeli newspapers on Wednesday were packed with stories on what they called a "settlement row," a "public spat" and the United States' "hard-line" stance. 

"Israeli-American relations are entering their most serious tailspin in a decade," newspaper Ha'aretz said in its analysis of what it called Obama's "tough love" on Wednesday. 

"There's no denying the disturbing change in tone emanating from Washington, which is elevating the settlement issue to an importance which is disproportionate," declared The Jerusalem Post in a recent editorial, accusing Obama of "coddling" the Palestinians while getting tough on Israel. 

The editorial said Israel needs to dismantle illegal outposts but suggested that freezing all settlement growth would do little to advance peace with the Palestinians. 

Obama met Tuesday, before flying out, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He reportedly reiterated his settlement position. With Obama now overseas, Vice President Joe Biden was following up in a meeting with Barak Wednesday in Washington. 

Meanwhile, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters at the United Nations Tuesday that "natural growth is needed ... and that's something that should be understood." 

Shalom said Israel has committed to halting construction of new settlements, but that natural population growth requires the continued construction of facilities like classrooms and doctors' offices. 

Ha'aretz reported that Obama intends to give Netanyahu four to six weeks to give an "updated position" on West Bank settlements and the goal of a two-state solution. 

Obama told NPR that the he still believes the United States has a "special relationship" with Israel, but that the "status quo is unsustainable" and that movement toward a Palestinian state is critical to Israeli security. 

"The current trajectory in the region is profoundly negative," Obama said. "Not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests." 

Some analysts see potential progress in Obama's demands, since it could prompt Arab nations to work more earnestly toward peace with Israel. 

Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University, said Obama's demand that Israel freeze settlements will make Arab leaders pay close attention to his speech this week. 

"His predecessor, who did talk two-state solution, was not taken seriously because there was no change on the ground," he said, explaining that Muslims want to see something concrete go along with the platitudes. 

Israeli politician Haim Oron told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday that Obama's stance is "correct" and in Israel's best interest. He dismissed the concerns of what he called the "Israeli Right." 

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